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One Person's Woohoo is Another's Woo: Growing a Community for Scientific Research

By Roger Russell, MA, PT, CFT & Pat Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT

Feldenkrais® teachers and students rely on our sensory experience as the foundation for our certainty that the Feldenkrais Method® effective. Indeed, some of us may describe our experiences by exclaiming “woohoo!” Yet, what kind of support can we expect from science for our claims about this effectiveness?

Some scientists will be extremely sceptical until we amass a large body of carefully designed and conducted peer-reviewed research papers. A notable recent example comes from a physician/scientist blogger (Orac, aka, David Gorski; August 4, 2009 at http://scienceblogs.com/insolence ) who critiqued the Feldenkrais Method after reading about classes offered without charge to patients at the renowned M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. After a cursory review of the limited research literature found on PubMed of the National Library of Medicine and with no direct experience with the Feldenkrais Method, Orac concluded this Method is “much more akin to faith healing than science. I’m left to come to the opinion that the Feldenkrais method[sic] borders on quackery.” As someone who is focused on cancer research and the venerated randomized clinical trials model as the prime source of knowledge, Orac/Dr. Gorski is unlikely to be a “Friend of Feldenkraissm in the near future. He proclaims “woo!”

On the other hand, we have support from many other physicians and scientists (e.g., Joan Borysenko, Norman Doidge, James Gordon, Michael Merzenich, Oliver Sacks, Esther Thelen, and Andrew Weil). Still, it is true that students, practitioners, and other stakeholders would benefit from research that advances our knowledge and understanding of the Feldenkrais Method. What would happen if our belief in the ability of the Feldenkrais Method to enhance human development were to receive extensive, rigorous, science examination? Further, are there ways in which we might encourage such examination?

Science is a process for differentiating reasonable certainty from beliefs and opinions. This makes science a valuable tool for our ongoing learning. Notice that we did not mention truth. Science has a history of uncovering new facts and revising theoretical paradigms. What was truth a century ago might now be a special case, if not overturned outright by new discoveries. At the same time, for 500 years Western science has had a pretty good track record in lifting the yoke of superstition and clarifying confusion about how the natural world functions. In the hands of its most brilliant practitioners, the scientific approach is among the most effective tools for discovery to have sprung from the fertile imagination of the human mind. 

How does science work? How do we know something in a scientific way? While the experts continue debating these questions, Francis Bacon, the granddaddy of scientific thinkers, tells us that science begins with unprejudiced observations. Curiosity awakened, scientists follow the path of the phenomena. The information they collect enables them to form a general hypothesis that then can be put to the test with a critical experiment. In Karl Popper’s model, scientists cannot avoid prejudice because we make assumptions about the world even before we begin to make observations. This prejudice can be creative, which lets scientific discovery be fed by the same deep spring that feeds culture, art and literature. We invent a hypothesis and then try to falsify it by making observations and doing experiments. If we cannot prove ourselves wrong, then we can say that we have discovered the best explanation, something akin to truth—for right now anyway.

Thomas Kuhn sees that scientific revolutions occur when problems within the accepted scientific paradigm become impossible to ignore. An iconoclast then takes a new perspective, a new way of looking. Perhaps Moshe Feldenkrais was such a radical. Glancing behind the mirror, this scientist discovers a new answer to the same old question. Upsetting the applecart of accepted reasoning and giving conventional thinkers heartburn, the scientist brings forth invigorating new opportunities to enable the human mind to capture how the web of the natural world is woven. Regardless of our perspective, one thing is certain: The scientific approach persistently uncovers elusively obvious facts and extends our understanding.

So we return to the question, will our practice stand the test of rigorous scientific examination? We think so.

Will the examination be done with tools and designs that match the complexity of the Feldenkrais Method? Maybe. If we are part of the research process.

We must ensure that our conversation with the scientific community is well informed about the theories and methods of science. Through dialogue, we can help interested researchers find appropriate questions, approaches and measurements that are coherent with what we know from our experiences. Students can volunteer as study participants and practitioners can collaborate with researchers to conduct lessons and gather information about their practices.

Until now, Feldenkrais teachers, scientists with relevant research interests, and others supportive of research have had few places to meet and exchange ideas, resources, and information. The Feldenkrais Science Network (available soon at http://www.feldscinet.org) will change that. This project of the Esther Thelen Fund of FEFNA is the first step in making it easier for the Feldenkrais Method community and scientists to interact with, inform, and include each other in their deliberations.

Interact: The new website will provide a venue for discussion among scientists, scholars, and Feldenkrais teachers interested in contributing to research projects or theoretical discussions. We will explore the realms in which the science and practice of human development cross paths. The website will be open to everyone who wants to read about scientific developments relevant to the Feldenkrais Method, including book reviews, conference reports, and more.

Inform: Once connected, we want to inform all participants. Feldenkrais teachers, students and other stakeholders who are not scientists need to inform ourselves about science. How can science help us demonstrate that the Feldenkrais Method is safe and effective, and provide explanations for the techniques we employ? Which scientists might be best able to help us utilize the research resources that are available? In addition, we need to inform the scientific community about the Feldenkrais Method in a language that scientists can understand. After all, we are entering their world by asking them to share their resources and help us demonstrate the effectiveness of what we are doing.

Include: Shared interests and common language will enable us to include competent, skilled, and thoughtful professionals in our own ongoing discussion about the theory and practice of the Feldenkrais Method. Reflecting on each other’s contributions, we can create a community of rigorous thinkers. This will be a partnership in which scholars, researchers, practitioners, students and other stakeholders can look into the mirror provided by this network to clarify our thinking, express our experiences accurately, and then begin to ask new questions. This cooperation can then be brought back into practice to sharpen our competence as Feldenkrais teachers to better meet the needs of our students.

How can you support this effort to rigorously examine the “woohoo” responses and reduce the “woo” reactions?
• Become a member—a FeldSciNetter—and join the forums once the FeldSciNet website goes online.
• Read the open access pages.
• Tell colleagues, researchers, and friends about the website.
• Become a sponsor or contributor.

For more details about the FeldSciNet website and the Thelen Fund, see the accompanying sidebar.
http://www.feldenkrais.com/method/research_website_sa_summer_2009

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