giulio_boccaletti's picture
Chief Strategy Officer of The Nature Conservancy; Author, Water: A Biography

Fooled By Habits

"Caron non ti crucciare: Vuolsi così colà dove si puote ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare" ("Charon, do not torment yourself: It is so willed where will and power are one, and ask no more") says Virgil to old Charon, justifiably alarmed by the mortal Dante and his inflated sense of entitlement in attempting to cross the Acheron. And so with that explanation they go on, Virgil and his literary pupil in tow. Or rather they would if Dante didn't decide to faint right there and then, as so often happens during his journey through the great poem.

Explanations are seldom as effective as Virgil's, although arguably they can be somewhat more scientific.I suppose I could have chosen any number of elegant scientific theories, but in truth it is a practitioner's explanation rather than that of a theorist, that I find most compelling. My preferred explanation is actually this: that our own habits tend to distort our perception of our own body and its movement.

Have you ever recorded your own voice, listened to it, and wondered how on earth you never realized you sounded like that? Well, the same is true for movement. Often we don't move the way we think we do.

Start by asking someone some basic questions about their anatomy. For example, ask them where is the joint that attaches their arm to the rest of their skeleton. They will likely point to their shoulder. But, functionally, the clavicle—the "collar bone"—is part of the arm and can move with it. In that sense the arm attaches to the rest of the skeleton at the top of the sternum. Ask them to point to the top of their spine, where their head sits. They will likely indicate some point in the middle of their neck. But the top of the first vertebra, the atlas, actually sits more or less at the height of the tip of their nose or the middle of the ear.

The problem is not just having the wrong mental picture of one's anatomy: the problem is being in the habit of moving as if it that were the right one. As it turns out, most of the time we operate our bodies much in the same way that someone without a driving license would operate a car: with difficulty and often hurting ourselves in the process.

One of the people who famously made this observation was a somewhat eccentric Tasmanian actor by the name of F. M. Alexander, around the turn of the last century. Alexander was essentially an empiricist. The story goes that he lost his voice while reciting Shakespeare. After visiting a number of specialists, who could not figure out what in the world was wrong with him, he eventually concluded that the problem must be something he was doing.

What followed was an impressive exercise in solipsistic sublimation: Alexander spent three years observing himself in a three-way mirror, trying to find out what was wrong. Finally he noticed something: When he would declaim verse, he had an almost imperceptible habit of tensing the back of his neck. Could that small tension, unnoticed up to then, possibly explain the loss of voice? It turned out that it did. Alexander continued to observe and explore, and through this process learnt to recognize and retrain his own movement and the use of his body. His voice returned.

To be fair, the study of the body and its movement has a long and illustrious history, from Muybridge onwards. But the realization that our own perception of it may be inaccurate has practical implications that run deep into our capacity to express ourselves.

This point is familiar to performing artists. Playing the key of a piano requires applying a pressure equivalent to about seventy grams, an almost insignificant weight for a human body a thousand times that. Yet most pianists know well the physical exhaustion that can come with playing. Not only their movement fails to achieve efficiency or effectiveness, but it often does not even reflect what they believe to be doing. Not surprisingly, a substantial part of modern piano training consists of inhibiting habitual behavior, in the hopes of achieving Rubinstein's famous effortlessness.

Musicians are not the only ones for whom the idea of retraining one's proprioception is important. For example, our posture and movement communicate plenty of information to those who see us. When wanting to "stand tall", we push our chests out, lift our chin and face. But we fail to notice that this results in a contraction of the neck muscles and therefore a significant shortening of the back, achieving exactly the opposite result. Actors know this well, and have a long tradition of studying the use of the body, recognizing and inhibiting such habits: you cannot control what to communicate through your posture and movement, if you are already busy communicating existing habits. This insight is, alas, true for most of us.

We are fascinated by the natural world as conceptualized in our elegant explanations, yet the single thing we spend the most time doing—using our body—is rarely the subject of extensive analytical consideration. Simple insights of practitioners like Alexander have depth and meaning because they remind us that analytical observation can tell us a lot, not just about the extraordinary, but also about the ordinary in our daily lives.