The Myth of the Primary Control

Ideas about the primacy of the head-neck relationship in human coordination, balance and postural support are, of course, deeply embedded in much Alexander Technique theory and practice. In recent years however, more and more teachers, myself included, seem to be questioning some of the ways in which this idea has been formulated, or are even rejecting it altogether. In this article I’m going to look at three frequently stated assumptions related to the idea of Primary Control which, I believe, are fundamentally mis-conceived and that actually make attaining worthwhile change in our functioning and that of our pupils considerably more long-winded than it needs to be. 

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These three ideas are:

  1. That there is a direct equivalence between the principles of human movement, balance and support and that of four-legged animals;

  2. That ‘the head leads and the body follows’ is, or should be, the basic organising factor in human activity;

  3. That an increase of tension in the head-neck is the best register available to us as to our quality of Use.

Why we’re not (entirely) like pigs

When alexander teachers use the formulation “head leads, body follows” they often illustrate it by using the example of other animals. And indeed, observing vertebrates other than ourselves we will see that their behaviour seems, on the face of it, to be mostly head-lead. For example, the vast majority of a pig’s activities are to do with snuffling out food, danger, safety, friends or a mate with their nose, their eyes and their ears, all of which are in the head. The pig is arranged so that their body and legs are behind the direction of travel their head usually wants to go (i.e. forward) so it makes sense that a pig might be designed to extend its attention and desire towards a point of interest and for the rest of it to follow. Most of the time its body is being asked to coordinate its activity around its head's movement towards a goal.

However it's dangerous to make too much of a false equivalence between this kind of animal functioning and ourselves. Firstly and most obviously, our head is not usually arranged in front of our bodies, and our mouth is not our main organ of contact with the world, and so it makes absolutely no sense to assume that what works for a pig will work for us. We’re hugely different in terms of balance, geometry, structure and function — we’re not pigs walking on our hind legs. But there’s also a much deeper and more important reason why this equivalency between humans and animals doesn’t hold up. As alexander teachers we often point out the potentially deleterious consequences of our human ability to use high-level cognitive facilities to interfere with neurologically lower-level systems of balance and postural support which would best be left to function on their own. But this potentially problematic ability to do things differently is also what enables us to choose new, un-inherited patterns of activity, and hence to learn, invent and pass on complex skills. This facility is not the problem with being human, it’s the whole point of being human. And because what we get up to is massively more complex than what animals do, we need to be able to organise our activity in less direct and linear ways.

For example, if we wish we can relaxedly orientate our bodies in one direction, put our visual attention in a completely different one, our aural attention somewhere else, reach for something we know is there but can’t see, all the while balancing on one leg, being aware of how what we are touching feels like, and making complex intellectual, artistic and emotional calculations about what we’re up to. We’re not a herd of pigs, endlessly and predictably following our snuffling noses. In order to do the complex voluntary activities that make us human we can — and must — break any simplistic link between what we’re interested in and how the body responds and orientates itself.

Because of this, the basic functions of balance, proprioception and orientation which are mediated through the head-neck, while still absolutely essential and basic, cannot be considered ‘primary’ in the sense of coming first in time or space in the way implied by the words ‘leading’ and ‘following’. A better word for how these system need to operate is ‘fundamental’ in so far as they are the basic building blocks on which more complex activities are built. We need to have a continually ongoing sense of ourselves in relation to the world around us from which to act. As such these fundamental systems need to be functioning all the time so that whatever complex voluntary activity we may be up to, we are balanced, supported and present in the ever changing way we need to be from moment to moment. The basic functions of balance, postural support and orientation don’t lead to good coordination in a one-follows-the-other-in-time way, rather they need to continually underpin it.  This is a small sounding distinction that actually has huge ramifications for how we teach this work.

Head-neck tension as a register of quality of use

Because of the belief that a free head leads activity in a sequence-based sense, a common view is that tightening at the head-neck is the ideal 'register' of poor use. If we believe that (physically speaking at least) good use starts at the neck then it makes a kind of sense to think that if we can notice the neck stiffening in response to a stimulus this will help us to nip unhelpful responses in the bud. This works up to a point, but is also rather circuitous and can get in the way of noticing what we’re actually up to.

For example, imagine I’m lying down and I want to roll over and, instead of wisely allowing true postural support to engage, I heedlessly start by jamming one arm against the ground against my braced torso to lever myself over. In other words I use my voluntary movement system to ‘grab’ ‘fake’ support to brace against, rather than allowing my postural system to do its job. Now it will certainly be the case that my head will pull back and down in the process, but the head-neck is not where the original impulse to act/react is located. The thought and the impulse begins in the pushing and bracing of the arm and the torso. In order to support that initial, ill-advised action of levering against the ground, other muscles tighten to support and brace the activity we are asking for, and the head has to clamp down as part of that cascading bracing response because the back of our head is where the big muscles we are co-opting for support terminate. But what happens at the head-neck is in fact one of the last in a sequence of involuntary tightenings which happen to support our request to the system for poorly coordinated movement. What I am actually ‘up to’ is not tightening my neck, I am ‘up to’ pushing and bracing with my arm.

Because of this, an increase in tension in the head-neck, though it is a very reliable indicator of poor use is a very poor one to use practically speaking. It is far more direct, ‘primary’, and straightforward to start to become aware of and notice what we’re actually asking for (in this case a violent pushing and bracing with the arm and torso in response to our desire to turn over) which starts the chain reaction of muscular holding that ends with the head pulling back, and to use that as the register that we're up to no good. Asking our pupils to focus on the head-neck as a register of poor use is putting the cart before the horse and makes things very much less straightforward than they need to be.

Breathing and awareness as a register of quality of Use

When we want a more general register of our quality of Use, then attention to the quality of our breath or awareness (both of which inevitably tighten and narrow down when we are out of support) tends to be much closer to the beginning of the chain of muscular holding, and hence to our original response to the stimulus to act. In contrast to using the very small area of the head/neck as a register, using  the breath or our quality of awareness encourages a more global, open and receptive way of being with ourselves — not just physically but emotionally and psychologically too. In addition, awareness of both breath and awareness encourages an over-aroused nervous system to regulate (see my article on polyvagal theory here) which in turn makes inhibition easier to access in what becomes a virtuous cycle.

How did we get here?

It’s curious to me that the rather obviously questionable idea that the head should lead and the body follow as an absolute rule has become so deeply embedded — almost an article of faith — for many in the Alexander Community. On the whole alexander teachers are intelligent and pragmatic people, and not likely to base what they do only on conjecture or theory, so presumably people are actually experiencing the head leading in their practice and in their work with their pupils. So how does this experience come about? 

Firstly I think it’s not unconnected to the fact that historically so much Alexander work has been done in the chair. When we stand up, the head generally should lead, and so we get a lot of experience of the head leading in that kind of work. In that context the idea makes perfect sense.  Beyond that, though, if we believe that the head should lead (whatever that means to us) then consciously or unconsciously we will tend to give the organism instructions or hints to move in that order, and so of course that is what we will experience. This is an example of putting the cart of theory before the horse of observation, and I believe is one reason that historically many pupils have found getting to grips with the Technique so long-winded and difficult.

There’s also probably some confirmation bias at work. When, as a teacher or pupil, we are focussed on the idea of the primacy of the head/neck relationship, that relationship will tend to come to the forefront of our awareness and thinking, and we will tend to minimise the importance of other things which make this much-valued freedom of the neck possible, and on which it actually completely depends (such as unforced contact with a secure surface, postural support from below, freedom in the breath, open awareness etc.). But we will still be encouraging these other equally essential aspects of good use in ourselves and our pupils — either consciously or, sometimes, through tacit, unarticulated understandings that we have picked up over many years of experience, practice and repetition — just as we can ride a bicycle without needing to articulate much of what we are doing to achieve it.

I think there is a deep desire in people for simplicity — for one, overarching principle to explain how things work and what we need to do. This is a very human need. We have to somehow reduce the complexity of an infinitely complex universe in order to survive. But no matter how much we would like it to be, evolution is not primarily about simplicity but adaption. By and large creatures tend to be lash-ups and mashups. Rather like iteratively self-generated AI algorithms, nature’s solutions are not always (or even usually) simple, neat and comprehensible. Nature does what works, and its glory is that any apparent simplicity emerges from unfathomable complexity. I think we serve ourselves and our pupils best — and are most fully human — when we learn to dance with the complexity of the possibilities inherent in our structure and design, rather than seek to reduce them to a simple formula that ‘always works’. Out of that there does, in time, come simplicity of action, but one that is more congruent with the way things actually are.

1 December 2018