Five years ago I wrote the following in an essay entitled The Piano Lesson, “When I note unconsciously motivated movement seemingly unrelated to disability and wonder aloud what it may signify, I invite the derision of my colleagues. The unique, artful expression of the body that make us human cannot be measured or easily interpreted. No graph can contain them, no normative values can be assigned to them. And my failing as a serious researcher probably lies in the fact that I cannot ignore them.”
I realize now that I was describing ideo-motor movement, a category of nonconscious movement that is the consequence of thought, ideas and our natural desire for bodily comfort. It was first described in 1852 and has been extensively researched although I’d never heard of it before.*
By the time I wrote this I had been using ideo-motor movement as a therapeutic agent for several years, having developed a manual technique that revealed its presence in all of my patients. In fact, I found it in anybody I touched.
I remember my initial surprise and confusion. I remember being concerned with my persistent fascination and with the fact that I immediately abandoned a large list of manual techniques that I had previously taught others. I never went back to them, and my obsession with nonconscious movement as a primary modality of care for painful conditions remains unchanged.
You might think that I had stagnated as a clinician, that I had placed myself in a position that allowed no further learning, but I never felt that way and there’s no evidence that it’s true.
I think that what I found was what the mathematician and physicist call symmetry. By this they mean an invariant quality or process that remains despite the changes within the system that surround it. The search for something common inside of seemingly disparate entities or phenomena is what Whitehead refers to in his famous observation at the beginning of this essay.
There are many examples of scientific advance that were driven by the discovery of symmetry. Einstein’s use of the constancy of light speed formed his theory of relativity and Mandelbrot’s description of geometric similarity across scale, characterizing fractals (an important feature of chaos theory), are just two.
Within my own specialty of manual care there seems to be a corollary. Several major schools of thought contain a single major theme of function (and dysfunction) that is used to explain most of the problems seen in the clinic. The originator or foremost proponent of a given theory or technique seems to be irresistibly drawn to some symmetry that, for them, provides a kind of stability and, in fact, beauty, that possesses them throughout their career.
Consider Cyriax’s and McKenzie’s fascination with the disc, Paris’ emphasis on the facet, and Andrew Taylor Still’s “Law of the Artery.” Outside the medical model is D.D. Palmer’s vertebral malalignment and Rolf’s focus on the fascia. Feldenkrais always began and ended his theory with learned patterns of use, as did F.M. Alexander.
Perhaps we can see each of these schools as love affairs, as passionate connections to something the originator sees both more and less clearly than anyone else. Under such circumstances their vision is clouded, and their actions perhaps not always perfectly rational.
I have this same feeling for the symmetry I’ve found in ideo-motor movement and neural tension. They provide something for me personally that may indeed blind me to other things, but I can’t abandon them.
Without this symmetry my work loses something both the craftsman and scientist seek. The physicist Hermann Weyl said it best; “My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful; but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful.”
* Nonconscious Movements by Herman H. Spitz (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1997)