Inhibition: Is It a Unified Process or Many Separate Ones?
by Erik Bendix, M.A.
Am.S.A.T. certified Alexander Technique teacher
Inhibition is central to the Alexander Technique, considered by most of its practitioners to lie near the heart of its practice and to be part of what makes the Technique unique among disciplines. But what exactly is inhibition? Is there a way to explain it in language that could be understood by someone who has not gone through the training usually required to give meaning to the word? Inhibition clearly requires practice and study. Does that mean it is hard to understand? Or hard to put into practice? Or perhaps that it is shorthand for a process more complex than its singular name might suggest? Is it indeed just one process, or is it many different ones? Perhaps if the process of inhibition could be spelled out more clearly, it would be easier to investigate it scientifically. The Alexander Technique might then gain from the light that science could shed on its practice.
Inhibition is understood in a variety of ways by practitioners of the Alexander Technique. Some focus on the withholding of consent to activity, on pausing or stopping oneself from doing things. Others put more emphasis on not resisting movement, on not stiffening or holding oneself back. Alexander Technique teachers often emphasize one side or the other, and can be critical of those who miss the emphasis they themselves favor. Then there are teachers who do their best not to take sides, pointing out that inhibition can mean several different things:
- It can mean stopping oneself, saying ‘no’ to an activity.
- It can mean not stiffening or resisting movement.
- It can mean a general process of becoming more quiet or less busy in oneself.
F.M. Alexander referred to inhibition in his writings without always clearly distinguishing between these different types of it. Perhaps he failed to make important distinctions between possible meanings of the word, and perhaps it is up to us to clarify these differences and keep them in mind as we attempt to put inhibition into practice. On the face of it, that seems a reasonable attitude to take, but how reasonable it really is may be worth considering more carefully. Alexander may not have been the most lucid of writers, but he obviously understood something important that had visible consequences in his own coordination and in that of his students. Thinking that we understand inhibition better than he did begs the question of whether our understanding yields better results than he was able to achieve. If it does not, it behooves us to try to understand better what he understood.
It is possible that Alexander’s interchangeable use of apparently different meanings of inhibition was not an oversight on his part. He might have understood the different senses of the word to be interconnected or even inseparable. This possibility seems worth pursuing. What might such connections be?
To answer this question, let us use an example of fairly simple movement, let us say the lifting of a glass of water off a table. Of course, such an action isn’t actually so simple, it involves the whole person’s ability to keep their balance while lifting the small weight of the glass, etc.. Nevertheless, let us pay attention to just one very active muscle in the person’s arm, the biceps, which contracts to bring the glass up off the table. The actively contracting muscle in such an action is usually called the agonist, the main actor of the event. There is also a supporting cast, notably the antagonist muscle which checks and limits the action of the agonist. In this case, the obvious antagonist would be the triceps muscle on the back side of the upper arm, which expands in length as the biceps contracts to lift the cup. The antagonist provides a variable amount of resistance to the action of the agonist, allowing the interplay of the muscles to modulate the speed and strength of the action. Otherwise it would be hard to lift the glass smoothly.
The roles of agonist and antagonist can be reversed. If I bring a hammer down on a nail, I will be contracting my triceps as my biceps expands. In this case the triceps has become the agonist and the biceps the antagonist, in opposite roles to the ones they played to lift the glass off the table.
The fact that muscles can switch roles like this may have big implications for how we understand inhibition. What does inhibition look like in the context of these different muscle roles? If I inhibit the impulse to lift the glass, my biceps will not contract and the glass will remain unlifted. Likewise, if I inhibit the impulse to hit the nail with a hammer, my triceps will not contract and the nail will remain unhammered. Both of these are examples of refraining from engaging an agonist muscle. If we widen our perspective to include the inhibition of engaging antagonist muscles, the picture gets both more complex and in a curious way also simpler.
Consider just the role of the triceps. As an antagonist muscle in the raising of the glass, its action was to provide variable resistance to the work of the biceps as the biceps works to raise the glass. If this action of the triceps were inhibited, the triceps would provideno resistance to the work of the biceps. As an antagonist, the muscle when engaged provided variable resistance to getting longer, and when disengaged provided no resistance. So inhibiting an antagonist involves not resisting action. Inhibiting an agonist involves not performing action. This difference might only boil down to which role the muscle happens to be playing. Depending on its role, the muscle either gets longer or shorter. Whether the muscle engages or not may not depend on whether it is getting longer or shorter, nor on which role it is playing. Thus, inhibition could happen either in not doing an action or in not resisting an action, and could involve muscle disengagement either way.
Another way to understand this is by what nerve messages are being sent to a muscle. The nerves are either firing or not. When they fire, the muscle engages. When they don’t fire, the muscle disengages. The question about muscle roles here is whether a given muscle needs a separate set of nerves to tell it what to do when it is in an agonist role as opposed to when it is acting as an antagonist. This seems very doubtful to me. It would be like needing a separate electrical system in your car for driving in reverse from the one you use for driving forward. This would be a needless duplication. If we know anything about nature it is that it generally eliminates needless duplication. So it is probably the case that a single set of nerves supplies the muscle and turns either on or off to engage or disengage the muscle, regardless of which role the muscle plays. That would mean that the same nerves are used to inhibit action as are used to inhibit resistance to action.
The implications for the Alexander Technique teacher could be profound. It may not matter whether you are teaching a student to refrain from an action or to not resist an action. For any given nerve pathways being educated, these two different approaches may amount to different versions of the same lesson. Indeed, isn’t that generally how most of us teach? One part of the lesson, usually chair work, involves asking the student not to perform many actions they would otherwise be tempted to do. Another part of the lesson, usually table work, involves asking the student not to resist movements the teacher is putting the student through. Few Alexander teachers feel this combination is giving the student a mixed message. On the contrary, these are just different ways of delivering the same message.
If this is correct, then 1. and 2. above are not really separate kinds of inhibition, and the pluralism that seeks to tolerate them as such is actually misplaced. They aren’t separate. They are connected, two different faces of the same process, depending on whether the muscles involved in an action are in an agonist or an antagonist role.
This probably sounds too simple, and indeed it is. The over-simplification is in the description of muscle roles. Human action almost never involves just two opposing muscles. Even in the two examples of lifting a glass or hammering a nail, much more is going on than that, even in the muscles primarily responsible for lifting or lowering the forearm. In lifting the glass, for example, the initial agonist is more likely a shorter muscle spanning only one joint, the brachialis muscle, which starts the process of bending at the elbow. Once that bending is underway, the agonist role gets passed to a long muscle spanning two joints, in this case the biceps, which uses its longer leverage to swing the forearm into more pronounced flexion. Meanwhile, on the other side of the arm, the antagonist role passes from a longer to a shorter muscle (from the triceps to the anconeus) to counterbalance the transfer of roles on the agonist side.
The point is that even in the simplest of actions, muscles are constantly passing roles from one muscle to the other. Indeed, their facility in doing this may be a good working definition of coordination. Smooth coordination involves each muscle engaging at just the right time to perform the action it has the best leverage to perform, neither jumping in too soon before other muscles are finished, nor continuing to engage when it is time for other muscles to take over. Both of these virtues are inhibitory. Avoiding premature engagement is an inhibition of action. Letting go at the right time is an inhibition of resistance.
One of the claims made by the Alexander Technique is that learning and practicing inhibition improves overall coordination. To people outside of the Alexander Technique circles, this might sound like a rather sweeping and unsubstantiated claim. To those inside, there is much anecdotal evidence to support it, however. To give just one example, I have been teaching international folkdance to large groups of people for about 40 years, and on a few occasions have taught it to groups of Alexander teachers. My rough guess is that Alexander teachers learn unfamiliar dances as much as two times faster than the general public, even those members of the public who make a hobby of learning unfamiliar dances. My teaching style to the two groups is the same, so the only thing that could explain this difference in learning ability is whatever the common denominator is in the training of the Alexander teachers.
All Alexander teachers spend a lot of time practicing inhibition, usually the inhibition of relatively simple actions like standing up or sitting down. How could such a practice have an effect on overall coordination? How does a practice of either refraining from or not resisting action generalize into overall improvement of reaction times and ability to learn new movement?
It is tempting (and fashionable) to think that studying the brain will answer all our questions here. But ‘kicking every problem upstairs’ like this also runs the risk that our questions will merely be displaced rather than answered. Let us look instead at how inhibiting individual muscle engagement might tend to spread or generalize throughout the system. Each time a muscle engages prematurely before its role predecessor has finished its job, for example, two muscles are engaged rather than one, and the two muscles are not quite pulling in the same direction (since no two muscles do). This increases the overall level of effort without a corresponding increase in action accomplished. The result, to use a familiar Alexander phrase, is unnecessary tension. By training individual sets of muscles not to do this, the local level of tension can be lowered. This localized improvement of efficiency may then have a ripple effect throughout the system.
A good analogy for such ripple effects might be the influence of coordinated traffic lights on the smooth flow of traffic through a city. When the signals to either stop or go are passed smoothly from intersection to intersection, traffic flows easily through the streets, and fuel and tempers are not wasted at intersections where different directions of traffic cross. If a traffic light gets stuck on red, however, traffic starts to back up throughout the system. The same effect could result from a traffic light turning green too soon: traffic would then snarl in the intersection, and the resulting chaos could also result in traffic that backs up throughout the system. Wasted gas from backed-up traffic is the analogue to wasted effort in a muscular system. Premature green lights are like premature muscle engagement, and lights stuck on red are analogous to muscles that resist letting go. The ability of the lights to change at just the right time, neither too soon nor too late, affects ease of general traffic flow, just as the ability of muscles to neither engage prematurely nor disengage too late affects systematic ease of movement.
Obviously, there is a relationship between the timing of muscle engagement and smooth coordination of movement. What is not obvious is what the sources of malfunction might be when coordination is not smooth. A malfunctioning traffic light might result from a problem in the light itself, from bad wiring at the intersection, or from difficulties all the way back at some central traffic control center. Similar inefficiencies could be created throughout the system regardless of which source the trouble comes from. The same is true in a neuromuscular system. Inefficiencies of movement might have many different sources, but they all have the potential to ripple out into systemic malfunction. This might be enough to explain how the removal of localized excess tension can have a generally calming effect on the system, without prejudice as to whether the original source of tension was in the brain or in the peripheral nerves or in some other bodily tissue or reservoir of compromised personal experience. It may not matter how the excess tension got there; it may be enough to teach it to disengage. Perhaps this helps explain how the Alexander Technique could be beneficial without ever attempting to diagnose or cure any specific ills. It could also show how the third meaning of inhibition above (“a general process of becoming more quiet or less busy in oneself”), could result from the practice of the other two. The Alexander Technique can be taught at the level of inhibiting observed response, and can have a systemic effect by doing only that.
If my line of reasoning is sound, there ought to be many ways to test the web of connections I have proposed:
- Is it actually true that practicing refraining from action makes it easier to not resist movement?
- Does learning to not resist movement make it easier to refrain from action?
- Are refraining from action and not resisting movement processes that only affect local actions, or do they tend to globalize across the system?
- Does the practice of either refraining from action or not resisting action lead to quieter overall levels of neural activity?
- Do these practices lead to measurable improvements in coordination?
- Do they lead to improvements in the ability to learn movement?
- Is there an analogue in robotics to inhibition? What is the relationship between systemic neuromuscular efficiency and the corresponding efficiency of electromechanical systems?
© Erik Bendix, 2012