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The Feldenkrais Method® as Clinical Neuroplasticity


Neuroplasticity is the property of brain cells to change structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience. SomaticWell is a specialized therapeutic center integrating somatic practices with neuro-technological enhancements for developing individual neuroplasticity. Some of the therapies provided at the SomaticWell Center include, the Feldenkrais Method®, the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP), and Photo-Biomodulation. The SomaticWell Center is at the forefront of the small, but growing number of clinical centers providing 21st century neurotechnological therapies together with ancient somatic wisdom of the body. It is, however, unique in incorporating moving with awareness via the Feldenkrais Method as a core somatic practice in relation with the other therapeutic modalities provided. In this blogpost I focus on the Feldenkrais Method for developing neuroplasticity – drawing on my background as a philosopher, somatic practitioner, and clinical practitioner of neuroplasticity.

The subjective of neuroplasticity has undoubtedly been most brought to public attention through the best-selling publications of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge. His first book, “The Brain that Changes Itself,” (2007) details the clinical research demonstrating neuroplasticity. Doidge’s second follow-up book, “The Brain’s Way of Healing,” (2015) delves into various clinical modalities achieving therapeutic results via neuroplasticity. Different therapeutic modalities that Doidge describes include the Feldenkrais Method®, Listening Therapy, and Photo-Biomodulation – three therapeutic modalities that are provided at SomaticWell. It is fair to say that “The Brain’s Way of Healing” provides a conceptual road-map for the SomaticWell Center’s therapeutic program.

In “The Brain’s Way of Healing,” Norman Doidge devotes two chapters to describing and analyzing the Feldenkrais Method. He identifies the founder of the eponymous Feldenkrais Method®, Moshe Feldenkrais as an early clinical pioneer in neuroplasticity. Feldenkrais’ major scientific writing, “Body and Mature Behavior” (1949) posits two ideas central for neuroplasticity, the role of function in determining brain structure and secondly that the adult brain continues to possess the ability to form new neural pathways, most evident in the first two years of life. Feldenkrais noted that, “It is in this connection that the study of function and structure relations appears in its full significance. In every case where the actual use made of the body can be shown to account for the physical structure, it becomes certain that the particular shape of the structure, though it may be similar to that of the parent, is still amenable to human influence.” [1]

Doidge narrates a story well-known to the Feldenkrais community of practitioners – how Moshe Feldenkrais, trained as a physicist and expert judo practitioner, realized the healing potential of neuroplasticity in relation to a severe prior knee injury:

“Then one day he [Moshe] had a strange experience. He went out alone, hopping on his good leg, slipped on an oily patch, and hurt his good leg. He struggled home, fearing he’d be completely immobile, went to bed and fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, he was surprised to find that he could stand on the leg with the injured knee: ‘I thought I was going insane. How could a leg with a knee that had prevented me standing on it for several months suddenly become usable and nearly painless?’ His neuroscience reading helped him realize that his brain and nervous system were the cause of this seeming miracle. The acute trauma to Feldenkrais’s “good leg” led his brain to inhibit the motor cortex brain maps for that leg to protect it from further injury should he move. But when one side of the brain is inhibited, often the other takes over its functions. The inhibition of the motor cortex maps for the good leg caused the motor cortex of his damaged leg to “fire up” whatever muscle he had left, so it could be more useful. This experience taught him that his brain, not solely the physical condition of his knee was in charge of his level of functioning.” [2]

There are a number of points embedded in this story worth highlighting:

1. Moshe Feldenkrais’ perennial attention to and awareness of his own movement. Feldenkrais defines awareness as “that part of the thinking mechanism that listens to the self while I am acting.” [3] Awareness is a pivotal element in neuroplasticity in terms of linking action and mental cognition via neurofeedback processes. As Feldenkrais writes, awareness is essential for establishing new life habits. “It [awareness] is turned into the action itself; it listens to the action.” [4] Highlighting the importance of awareness in relation to action to transform neural function, Moshe Feldenkrais termed his group movement lessons “Awareness Through Movement.”

2. The power of abduction in developing novel hypotheses arising from attention to perceptual data. The process of abductive reasoning, as described by American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce, works through relating a creative intuitive hypothesis based on a single occurrence to subsequent experimental validation analyzed in terms of a statistical series. Abduction is essential for the retrospective reconstruction of case from effect that occurs in clinical case-based reasoning. Feldenkrais could have ignored the unexpected information regarding his knee injury. Instead, he trained himself to observe perceptual data and strived to make sense of this this data in relation to his understanding of neural structure and function. Interestingly, abduction as a form of mental representation is itself associated with brain structures. Paul Thagard, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, has proposed the conceptualization of abduction in terms of neural networks. Abduction in developing new ideas is itself associated with laying down new neural networks in the brain. [5]

3. Testing out these conceptual insights in relation to lived embodied experience. The biography of Feldenkrais’ life-mission can be understood as the attempt to explore and communicate the embodied basis of conceptual ideas through the most concrete forms of somatic experiences. Mark Reese, foremost biographer of Moshe Feldenkrais has noted that, “When Feldenkrais teaches his most important ideas, he can be counted upon to communicate their foundations through the most concrete forms of somatic experiences.” [6] Indeed, each Functional Integration or Awareness Through Movement session provides the context for somatic exploration and laying down of new neural pathways.

4. Finally, the Feldenkrais Method® provides a mechanism for directing unconscious processes via conscious thought and action. Improved cognition as well as neuromuscular action, especially on the background of brain impairment, is an indication of enhanced neuroplasticity. However, the neural mechanism of neuroplasticity is essentially an unconscious phenomenon. Again, assuming that all mental representations are also brain structures, enhanced neuroplasticity implies both enhanced unconscious mental representation as well as new or improved neural connections.

Returning to Doidge: In “The Brain’s Way of Healing”, he identifies eleven principles that underly the Feldenkrais Method. Most of these principles are associated with neurodifferentiation – one of five states of neuro-plastic healing: [7] These eleven principles include:

1. The mind programs the functioning of the brain

2. A brain cannot think without motor function.

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

4. Differentiation – making the smallest possible sensory distinction between movements – builds brain maps

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

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

7. Reduce the effort whenever possible.

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

9. Random movements provide variation that leads to developmental breakthroughs

10. Even the smallest movement in one part of the body involves the entire body.

11. Many movement problems, and the pain that goes with them, are caused by learned habit, not by abnormal structure.

In reflecting upon these principles, I consider that the majority of them can be further broken down into two core elements, i.e., theoretical principles or neuroplastic techniques. Principles 1-4 may be related to the two-way feedback process between mental function and structure. In other words, how awareness and brain structure impact on each other in a two-way neurofeedback process. Principles 5-7 refer to the somatic techniques by which moving with awareness in Feldenkrais lessons creates neuroplastic brain changes, including moving slowly, with minimal effort. Principles 8-9, stating the importance of random movements and error-feedback response are crucial for this process of neuroplasticity in terms of incorporating novel possibilities and possibility of learning from mistakes in this process of neuroplasticity. Spontaneity and micro-movements are incorporated into the technique of practicing a Feldenkrais lesson, and itself mimics the way the brain learns new information.

In his analysis of the Feldenkrais Method, Doidge highlights the theoretical principles and techniques embedded in the Feldenkrais Method as a form of somatic educational practice. He does not attempt to relate in any great depth Feldenkrais’ neuroscientific conceptualization of his method in relation to the contemporary understanding of neuroplasticity. This is understandable. Another Feldenkrais practitioner and philosopher of the Method, Carlo Ginzburg has pointed out that the densely written text of “Body and Mature Behavior,” is couched in the language of the physiology, psychology, neuroscience, and learning theory available in the 1940s – decades before the science of neuroplasticity began to be developed. [8] Doidge notes, it was only after 1977, the year that Feldenkrais met the neuroplasticity pioneer Paul Bach-y-Rita, that he began to explicitly integrate the emergent neuroscience of neuroplasticity into the conceptualization of his method. [9]

Doidge’s analysis of the method, while valuable in terms of publicizing Feldenkrais as a method for developing neuroplasticity, highlights the fact that the project of understanding Feldenkrais and neuroplasticity is still relatively incipient. In a sense, this limitation mirrors the critique against Doidge for his popularization of neuroplasticity more generally. In other words, Doidge has been criticized for over-generalization and “selling-treatments.” It is important to note that these critiques, unjustified in my opinion, do not negate the scientific validity of neuroplasticity itself. Nonetheless, much work remains to relate the present science of neuroplasticity to the core principles and techniques associated with the Feldenkrais Method. This task is central in the ongoing project of researching the Feldenkrais Method. Yet, this task is not simply one of applying neuroscientific conceptions to understanding the Feldenkrais Method. Feldenkrais implicitly understood neuroplasticity, because he experienced it. Embodied experience necessarily remains at the heart of the Feldenkrais Method. I have argued in this blogpost that neuroplasticity is an everyday affair. Each novel thought is necessarily associated with new neural structure. Thinking that neuroplasticity can only be proven through some kind of neural reductionism is to miss the wonderful insight into human potential afforded by the science of neuroplasticity confirming what Feldenkrais intuitively knew – the inalienable link between function and structure. At the end of the day, the biggest evidence for neuroplasticity remains changes of self-awareness in daily activity.


References:

1. Feldenkrais, M. (1949) Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation, & Learning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 9.

2. Doidge, N. (2015). The Brain’s Way of Healing. Penguin Random House, UK, p. 165.

3. Feldenkrais, M. Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshe Feldenkrais, edited by Elizabeth Beringer, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California, p. 167.

4. Feldenkrais, M. (2010). Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshe Feldenkrais, edited by Elizabeth Beringer, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California, p. 174.

5. Thagard, P. (2007). Abductive inference: From philosophical analysis to neural mechanisms. In A. Feeney & E. Heit (Eds.), Inductive reasoning: Cognitive, mathematical, and neuroscientific approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

6. Reese, M. (2015). A Life in Movement. San Rafael, CA: Reese Kress Somatics Press, p. xvii)

7. These five stages of neuro-plastic healing include: Correction of general cellular functions of the neurons and glia; Neurostimulation – energy based neurostimulation of brain cells via sound or light; Neuromodulation – restoring the balance between excitation and inhibition in the neural networks; Neurorelaxation – turning off sympathetic nervous system fight-or-flight mechanism, in order to allow the brain to accumulate and store the energy needed for recovery; Neurodifferentiation and learning.

8. Ginsburg, C. (1970). The Intelligence of Moving Bodies: A Somatic View of Life and Its Consequences. AWAREing Press, p. xii

9. Doidge, N. (2015). The Brain’s Way of Healing. Penguin Random House, UK, p.169.


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