Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.
The Presence of Ideomotor Movement
Though it is rarely spoken of in discussions about human movement, descriptions of ideomotor activity are present in the medical literature beginning in 1852 when The Proceedings of the Royal Institution reprinted a lecture by William Carpenter. He identified ideomotor as a third category of nonconscious, instinctive behavior, which also included excitomotor (breathing and swallowing) and sensorimotor (startle reactions) activity. Ideomotor movement is secondary to thought, and it begins in the cerebrum.
The discovery of its presence and descriptions of intricate studies demonstrating its manifestation conducted in the 19th and 20th centuries can be found in Hermann Spitz’s text (see resources).
In short, ideomotor action is well documented and the reality of its presence has never been refuted. Instead, it seems simply to have been forgotten. As Ray Hyman states, “Although the effects of ideomotor action have been understood for at least one hundred fifty years, the phenomenon remains surprisingly unknown, even to scientists.”
Ideomotor action is referred to as “mischief-making” because its unrecognized presence is actually the reason movement occurs in activities such as dowsing, the play with the Ouija board and “facilitated communication.” In fact, any activity in which movement is thought to be caused by forces that transcend our senses or are described as metaphysical in nature should be suspected to begin with movement that we don’t consciously plan. The word volition is especially important to this concept. Defined as “the power of choosing; the act of making a choice or decision; willful,” volition is subtly different than simple reflexive activity thought not to include the higher centers of the brain. And, like a simple reflex, ideomotor movement occurs instinctively, though it is often far more complex and always without volition. This is the primary reason those doing it do not commonly take responsibility for its manifestation or consequence. We suppose ourselves to be consciously in control of our movement for the most part, and it is difficult to convince people otherwise under ordinary circumstances.
Movements, especially complex and meaningful movements without volition, are an important aspect of our ability to communicate. This has been demonstrated in numerous studies detailing the non- verbal aspects of conversation (see resources). Without them, we must simply hope that others do not take our meaning in the wrong way, though our words might be the same written or spoken over the phone. These movements are by definition ideomotor in nature, and they are expressed fully when we are trying our best to be understood fully. When we feel we must restrict them due to some temporary social convention, their loss will be felt as a restriction and an isometric contraction of the musculature normally used for their expression. The consequent restriction in normal range of motion might be assigned to some articular or connective tissue dysfunction if its origin in the sublimation of full ideomotor action is never considered. Imagine being desperate to speak aloud but not being allowed to do so. Wouldn’t your throat muscles isometrically contract? As William James said,
“Whenever a movement unhesitatingly and immediately follows upon the idea of it, we have ideomotor action. (This is not a curiosity), but simply the normal process…and we may lay it down for certain that every mental representation of a movement awakens to some degree the actual movement which is its object; and awakens it in a maximum degree whenever it is not kept from so doing by an antagonistic representation present simultaneously to the mind.“
(emphasis mine) Remember, neurons get many signals at once. The total effect is determined by adding those that are excitatory and subtracting those that are inhibitory.
If I were to describe a culture where free speech was restricted, I would probably note a chronic tightness in the throat; a manner of speaking that was stilted and formal, and not always authentic. The unrequited desire to move the mouth freely would be evident in those muscles designed to do so. There would probably be people there responsible for keeping others quiet, and, in collusion, the culture would go along so as not to cause disorder.
If we as a culture were not comfortable with bodily expression that is unique and nonconsciously motivated, it would follow that there would be a deep distrust of ideomotor activity, especially in its fullest form. We would create an “ideal” of posture that was largely static in nature, and, when allowed to change, would only be allowed to do so in specific, choreographed ways. Of course, it would be virtually impossible to ablate this instinctive activity altogether, and all those who broke with the imposed traditions of stance and movement could not possibly be jailed. There would just be too many of them. But, I think, it would be possible to simply use the ideal stillness and erectness of the body as an exemplar of discipline, serenity, strength and high moral purpose. In such a culture, it would be clear to any school child that slouching and fidgeting were the activities of the undesirable student. Being able to sit or stand “at attention” for prolonged periods, while largely impossible without tremendous effort or discomfort, becomes an unattainable but constantly desired goal. There would even be a profession largely devoted to helping others stay erect and still. This profession would be taught to frown upon spontaneous bodily expression; perhaps assuming it was some form “illness behavior.” Not knowing the consequences of restricting ideomotor expression (isometric contraction, nonconsciously generated), they would interpret all muscular “tightness” as a lack of appropriate relaxation. Methods of muscular “stretching” combined with admonitions to consciously override the brain’s seemingly inappropriate message to the muscle with willful means of inhibition would be invented. Large doses of this “care” would be required to keep the ideomotor expression at bay. And they wouldn’t work especially well. People in the profession would often be heard to say things like, “I can’t treat her. She just won’t relax!”
The Purpose of Ideomotor Movement
That this movement exists is irrefutable. Its origins are instinctive and necessary for normal functioning. We cannot hide entirely our intention to move despite our best efforts when we sense that movement is productive and necessary for our preservation. Trying to hide what we intend to do requires careful practice, and it has applications throughout the world of sport where one’s opponent is trained equally hard in observational skills to combat this deception. An especially interesting discussion of how good we can become at sensing another’s intention to move can be found in Jeremy Campbell’s book Winston Churchill’s Afternoon Nap. (see resources). It has to do with avoiding a blow in boxing despite the fact that it is commonly delivered faster than it should be possible to do so. It is evident that the ideomotor activity preceding the visible movement of the arm is sufficient to sense. In other words, it’s “telegraphed,” and a trained opponent will see it coming. There are many other examples from sport, but of more interest to me is something like the “tell” in poker; those small behaviors that prove revealing to anyone noticing them and understanding them in context. The classic text on the subject contains a forward written by an anthropologist (see resources).
If, as William James suggests, ideomotor activity underlies most of what we do in order to function throughout the day, and it begins almost imperceptibly in many instances, why is this useful information for those of us dealing with patients?
I described earlier a culture where any nonconsciously motivated bodily expression was strictly controlled by means of a pervasive bias against it. In order to perpetuate this, it might also be implied that erect stillness or movement outside a choreographed regimen was “unhealthy” in some way. I have the sense that this is where I live. And, in my clinical experience, constant admonitions toward erect posture, to “just relax,” and to follow prescribed regimens of exercise designed to strengthen muscles and stretch connective tissue have simply not been as effective as we were taught they would be. The majority of therapists attending my workshops suffer from chronically painful problems (primarily spinal), and the traditional methods have not helped. To me, this is quite meaningful, although it is a fact rarely spoken of openly.
I am suggesting here that ideomotor activity does not merely represent our thoughts about what’s in our poker hand, or that it exists only to reveal our desire to move, but that it is also present to correct us. I’m saying that one of its primary functions is the reduction of mechanical deformation, and that this is the main activity our culture frowns upon. Consider this: A child on his first day of schooling will breath and swallow (exicitomotor) and the teacher says nothing, he startles in his seat if the door slams (sensorimotor) and no one complains. But if he shifts in his seat in order to grow more comfortable, if he expresses fear or anticipation or anxiety that is deemed inappropriate, there is a very good chance that all of this movement will be discouraged.
Although the culture eventually encourages the expression of feelings with words and some array of gestures, the ideomotor movement essential for comfort never finds the same acceptance or approval.
Suppose one day as the end result of a unique set of circumstances enough mechanical deformation is created to produce nociception. Without any trust in the ideomotor activity necessary for correction (the “antagonistic representation present simultaneously to the mind” of William James), anybody would withhold its expression. The resultant isometric activity would be mistaken for guarding, and all effort directed toward its reduction, never its full expression. I think, however, that another’s desire to move is palpable, and that when it is encouraged with Simple Contact (see resources) it can prove to be an effective method of relieving pain and restoring normal autonomic tone (see Levine’s article and book in resources).
When therapy ignores the presence of ideomotor movement, it loses an opportunity to enhance the instinctive abilities of the patient. When it misinterprets the resultant isometric activity, it spends time and effort trying to get rid of something that should be amplified by means of enhanced awareness and acceptance. Until our community begins to understand more about functioning at this level, it will fail to help many who are simply trying to correct, but can’t find a safe place to do so.
- Spitz H. Nonconscious Movements: From Mystical Messages to Facilitated Communication. Manwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum 1997
- Carpenter WB. On the influence of suggestion in modifying and directing muscular movement, independently of volition. Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. 1852;1:147- 153.
- James W. Principles of Psychology. New York, NY: Holt; 1890
- Hyman R. The Mischief-Making of Ideomotor Action. The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine Vol.3 No.2 (Fall/Winter 1999)
- Campbell J. Winston Churchill’s Afternoon Nap: A Wide-Awake Inquiry Into The Human Nature of Time. Simon and Schuster NY 1986
- Signal system in communication. Frederick Erickson, 1982. Classroom discourse as improvisation: Relationships Between Academic Task Structure and Social Participation Structure in Lessons. In L.C. Wilkinson ,ed. Communicating in the Classroom. New York, Academic Press.
- Caro M. The Body Language of Poker: Mike Caro’s Book of Tells. Carol publishing Group Edition 1996
- Levine P. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma North Atlantic Books 1997
- Levine P. The body as healer: A revisioning of trauma and anxiety. Somatics, 8(1) 1990
- Many other essays regarding the nature of Simple Contact may be found on my website, “The Clinician’s Manual”