The Robots Are Coming!
I noticed a really interesting article in the new scientist this week. It was talking about how people are starting to use motion capture technology like the Microsoft Kinect, to measure the quality of activities such as lifting weights. This is great! But I’ve been racking my brain to think how I can apply this to the Alexander technique. When I work with people as an Alexander technique teacher, I’m assessing the quality of their movements constantly. An area of particular interest is the neck. The quality of the relationship of our head to our neck and back, tends to determine how easy movements are, how conscious we are of them, the quality of the movement, and the likelihood of it causing is pain. I assess this visually (using my eyes, of course!), and physically, using my hands (erm, obviously!). This relationship of the head to the neck and the back is really important in activities like how we sit at a computer, how we move from sitting to standing and vice versa, and in highly skilled activities like performing surgery, playing musical instruments, and playing sports at a professional level.
The authors of this paper used a Microsoft Kinect together with some software they’ve programmed to be able to feedback to people, who are lifting weights, whether they are doing so correctly, or if they’re likely to hurt themselves by moving badly. If the sensitivity of this system is good enough to be able to tell if someone is compromising the ideal relationship of their heads to their neck, in theory it would be enough to provide feedback to correct themselves when they’re sitting at a computer or even performing their highly skilled activities. However, there’s a problem here. People tend to assume a new posture, particularly one that they think is correct, by adding muscular tension and holding themselves in a particular position. When we apply the Alexander technique, rather than sitting rigidly or moving rigidly, we’re actually expanding rather than tensing in order to make movement as fluid and painless as possible. This usually results in a feeling of effortlessness and lightness which is very pleasant to experience. If we were being monitored by a system that told us when posture was bad, and then put effort into adopting a rigid posture in order to please the system, it would likely lead to more tension, and end up causing even more pain.
I was also recently excited to see a new software system that can spot other very small changes in the body. For example, using that system it was possible to be able to measure someone’s heart beat by noticing minute variations in the colour of their skin. Eulerian video magnification can spot subtle changes of colour or movement that the human eye would struggle to see. Theoretically it would be possible to pay attention to the back of someone’s neck using this system and hence be able to tell when the neck was tensing before an activity. Using this as feedback it could be possible to train people not to tighten their necks before and as they perform an activity. This is one of the key functions of an Alexander technique teacher as they train people to be more skilled in the activities of everyday life and adopt consciousness of the body’s position in space.
As a die-hard cognitive scientist, I’m longing for the day when feedback systems are good enough to be able to help us learn Alexander technique with more ease. I just hope it doesn’t put me out of a job!
I would love to work with the professors and Ph.D. students at the universities that are creating these new systems, and find ways to help it easier to learn the Alexander technique. But at the end of the day it all boils down to that mind-body connection, and how we react reflexively and instinctively to the stimuli of everyday life, like answering the phone, or typing an email.
I’m due to spend some time investigating these systems, it’s well overdue but I’ve been to busy to get researching, and I’ll be figuring out how I can apply these to the act of teaching the Alexander technique so we can make it even easier for people to learn how to live without hurting their backs or their necks or their shoulders – by forgetting their bodies as they going about their day.
That’s if I get a spare second!

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