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Origins and Theory of Mapping

William Conable

This article is revised from a paper presented by William Conable at the Third International Alexander Congress in Engelberg, Switzerland in August, 1991. It is printed in its original form in the Congress papers, published by Direction, Bondi, Australia, 1992. 


Our ideas about body mapping are not central to understanding the Technique, nor do they substitute for its essential teachings: primary control, inhibition, orders, and the like; but they can be important pedagogical tools. They are also not wholly original with us. They are clearly implied in Alexander’s writings; both of our principal teachers, Marjorie Barstow and Frank Pierce Jones, occasionally used them in teaching us. They are suggested in David Gorman’s work and in the pedagogy of many of our colleagues. What this chapter hopes to contribute is systematic exploration and a theoretical framework.

In trying to understand the difficulties people have in learning the Alexander Technique it is useful to observe that the words by which we refer to the parts of our bodies do not mean the same thing to all of us. This being true, what we do to carry out intentions related to the parts of our bodies is not consistent among all of us. This can easily be demonstrated in any group of people by asking them to point to their shoulders or their hips. Even among people very sophisticated in their appreciation of the human body (such as Alexander teachers) there is often a wide range of answers to such a question. It is noteworthy that in general all of these answers will be correct — that is, they will each refer to what people sometimes agree that these words mean.

Alexander frequently referred to what he called people’s “imperfect sensory appreciation.” What did he mean by this term? Although sometimes he maintains that he is referring to all the senses, the main thrust of his discussion refers to kinesthesis. There are two possible sources of the distortion Alexander describes. The first is that undue pressure on or tension in the kinesthetic receptors leads to a distortion of the information they send back to the brain; or perhaps that by the phenomenon of sensory accommodation the information they send is screened out. This is, in other words, the transmission of an imperfect or “debauched” kinesthetic message to the centers where it is interpreted.

The second possibility is that the information sent to the brain is indeed accurate, but is misinterpreted in experience. This would lay the emphasis in Alexander’s statement on the word appreciation. This second possibility is the subject of this chapter.

Body Maps

We all seem to have in our minds maps of our bodies and their workings. They include size, shape, and mechanics. These maps are what we use to interpret our kinesthetic and visceral sensations; at least to some extent, we also guide our movement by them. This is not the same thing as the well-known neurological correspondence of various parts of the brain to various parts of the body. That is simply physiological; the map being discussed here is something constructed in consciousness.

The function of creating these maps may be in some way innate, but their contents are not. It is easy to understand that this must be so. Our bodies change in size and shape so radically and so continually throughout the course of our lives that if our maps of them could not change, the maps would almost always be erroneous.

Because the maps must be able to be changed, they must be learned. They are created from the experience of movement, of touching and being touched, and maybe from other things as well. They are our memories of our interpretations of our experience. But because these interpretations may not be accurate, the maps based on them may also not be accurate.

Indeed, inaccuracy in this regard seems almost inevitable. Knowledge of the complex details of the structure and function of the human body is not available to an infant mapping his or her body. Misunderstood or erroneous verbal and pictorial information, imitation of others’ idiosyncrasies, and emotional charging or rejection of various body parts may play a distorting role. Fantasy and simple guessing are important sources for the details of the map. Details may be mistaken; neither is there any guarantee that the map will be consistent. Since it is formed out of many experiences over a long period of time and on the basis of an incomplete awareness of the totality of the body (or indeed, of the self) it is quite usual for different aspects of the body map to be, if not grossly contradictory, at least subtly inconsistent.

It also seems to be true that the interpretations forming the basis of the map are often unconsciously performed. They often take place early in life, well before the development of a sophisticated adult consciousness. Therefore the map based on them is often at least partly unconscious and often initially accessible to adult scrutiny only with some difficulty. Once this difficulty is overcome, it is possible to learn to change the map with surprising ease and with surprisingly powerful results.

An Example

The following story is a good introduction to the use of the mapping concept (in fact the incident led me to develop the idea) and illustrates a number of its implications. Some years ago a colleague asked me to observe a violin student who was having difficulty bending her bow arm at the elbow. Nothing the student or the teacher could think of was effective in helping her to solve this problem. Watching her play, I asked myself what I would have to think in order to move that way. It looked to me as if a possible answer was that she was thinking of her elbow joint about two inches higher on her arm than it really was. I thought that a plausible reason for this would be that that was the distance of her elbow from her shoulder when she started the violin as a child and that perhaps she had not changed her thinking as she grew.* When I proposed this to her and showed her where her elbow joint really moved, she said, “Oh, I can do that,” and immediately proceeded to play with a freely moving elbow.

This story is significant in several ways. First is the issue of how the student’s map influenced her behavior. Because she felt her elbow joint to be located where in truth there was nothing but solid bone, when she tried to bend it there no movement could occur. Further, since she interpreted the sensations from the area where the joint actually existed as being in the middle of her forearm, it became important for her to prevent any movement there — if you bend in the middle of a bone, something is broken! Yet the moment she was made aware of these unconscious assumptions and revised them, she was able to move in a very different way. This reveals an important underlying principle which seems to operate consistently: if there is a conflict between the way the body is mapped and the way it actually is, people will behave as if the map were true. I believe that this is because the map is the interface between conscious awareness and the bodily mechanisms: it is literally how we know ourselves. Although it is amenable to observation on a meta-level of consciousness, most of the time we simply accept it. And yet such is the power of the mapping function that simply changing the map can effect an instantaneous change in experience and behavior.

Next it is interesting that although this student was apparently unable to bend her elbow when playing the violin, she bent it over and over again in other activities of her life: eating, combing her hair, driving a car, and so on. This illustrates the apparent fact that the body map need not be internally consistent. In this it is no different from any other mental representation that people make of the world. Indeed, by its very nature any mental representation of the world is not the same as what it represents, and thus is necessarily flawed. Much of the time this is insignificant and even beneficial; sometimes it leads to difficulties.

Types of Mismapping

There are various common types of mapping errors. People map their bodies erroneously as regards size, structure, and function; they leave things out; and they are prone to vagueness and blankness. Illustrating these sorts of problems allows the discussion of a number of interesting examples without the necessity of offering a detailed description of the complete map.

Size is one of the most widespread inaccuracies in the map. A particularly prevalent mismapping is a result of the adolescent growth spurt. At the very time when rapid changes are occurring in the size, shape, and proportions of the body (and thus when the map is in strong need of revision) typical Amer-ican students spend hours sitting still in school. The map is unconsciously revised through experience of movement and contact: the two things least likely to happen in junior high school. If this were not enough, children of this age are likely to feel awkward or self-conscious about their bodies and bewildered by their changing sexuality, as it affects both their internal and their social experience. Small wonder that many of us responded by saying in effect “Body? What body? I don’t want to know about it!” and thus interfered with the automatic re-mapping process at a crucial developmental moment.

This can be observed in the demeanor of gawky adolescents of both sexes, awkwardly trying to operate an adult-sized body on the basis of a child-sized map. Sometimes they try to force the body down to the size their self-concept tells them it is — we often try to adjust the territory to fit the map! — stooping to get the head down to the level of smaller peers, or pulling the shoulders down in a way that gives the impression of a huge long neck on a spindly body. The hip joints are often operated as if they were the old distance from the head, and there seems to be no right place for the arms. Strange distortions are imposed in an effort to increase or decrease the size of the body as a whole or of various parts which are considered too large or too small. Many of these awkwardnesses are gradually eliminated as the map is unconsciously revised; but many adults manifest the discomforts of early adolescence in their body maps through life.

Other examples of sizing errors have other sources. We have found that most people greatly underestimate the diameter of the spine. When asked to demonstrate the size of one of their own cervical vertebrae, people will typically show diameters ranging from two to four centimeters. Rarely will anyone get close to the true dimension (a minimum of five cm. for a small adult) and almost everyone is astonished when shown how to feel the transverse processes of his or her own atlas. Realizing the true size of the spinal column gives almost anyone an increased sense of strength and stability.

The most frequent example of structural mismapping is the wrong location of joints. The story of the violin student above is an instance of this problem. Another common example which effects musicians and others who depend on finger dexterity is the mislocation of the joint between the proximal phalanges of the fingers and their respective metacarpals. This is not placed at the line at the base of the fingers (on the palm side) but from one to two centimeters further down into the palm. Going back in forth in one’s mind between these two maps and wiggling the fingers is a highly revealing experiment in the power of the map.

The words hip and shoulder each have several meanings in English, and it is quite common for people to think of the hip and shoulder joints in ways which combine several of these meanings. People often try to move their arms as if there were no sterno-clavicular or gleno-humeral joints but at a notional joint at the inner border of the deltoid muscle (see the drawing on page 53). Similarly, they try to move their legs from the very top of the pelvis, or from an imagined joint at the bottom of the ischia or at the pelvic attachment of the gracilis muscle. Each of these misconceptions has its own characteristically distorted gait. There are dozens more of these confusions about joint placement.

Functional misconceptions also abound. One very common one is important for people who practice manual skills. When the forearm is rotated, the ulna is stable, while the radius rotates around it. This creates an axis of rotation approximately in line with the little finger. Few people realize this, but instead try to stabilize the radius and rotate the ulna on a putative axis in line with the thumb, the first finger, or the middle finger. This mistake can cause severe problems of awkwardness and even tendinitis.

The last kind of mapping errors which I will mention are those of vagueness, blankness, or absence of a part of the body in the map. These lacunae can come from simple ignorance or imitation. Frequently, however, they are the result of withdrawing from an injury and never entirely re-establishing contact with the injured part. Also, unfortunately, they can be the result of physical or psychological abuse which leads the sufferer to disown or distort part of the body. In such cases there may be a resistance to correcting the map, or there may be a resurfacing of repressed traumatic experiences which requires emotional support or treatment as an adjunct to the work of the teacher.

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