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The Science Behind the Feldenkrais Method®

By Pat Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT

The many people who have benefited from lessons with a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm need no scientific evidence to validate those effects. They have their direct experiences. Yet others—whether they are contemplating lessons for themselves, health care professionals considering referring a patient to a practitioner, or those who are curious about the effectiveness of the Feldenkrais Method®—want to know more about the science behind it.

Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc., began developing his method in the 1940s based on his studies of many disciplines through the best scientific literature of his day. For many years, few thought of the possibilities for improving function the way that he did. As a small example, he hypothesized that the left hands of string musicians would have a different and larger pattern of representation, or map of activity, in the area of the brain that monitors the sensations and actions of the hand than would others who did not regularly place such demands on their left hands. He was correct in his understanding of the influence of our sensing and acting on the organization of our brains, but not until 1995 were neuroscientists Thomas Elbert, Edward Taub and colleagues able to document this (Increased Cortical Representation of the Fingers of the Left Hand in String Players, Science, vol. 270, Oct. 13). Edward Taub and colleagues have been applying this knowledge to the rehabilitation of people who had strokes or traumatic brain injuries well past the time frame when many thought (and some still do think) that improvement was no longer possible.

Assisted by the technological advances that allowed neuroscientists to learn more about the adaptability of the nervous system across the life span, many other scientists in various disciplines were shifting their thinking in the 1980s and 1990s. Without knowledge of Dr. Feldenkrais, they were “catching up” with his ideas about sensing, feeling, thinking, and acting. Ideas from dynamic systems theory (chaos theory, cybernetics, etc) found their way into human psychology and human movement sciences. The habitual behaviors that Dr. Feldenkrais described as ruts or grooves, dynamic systems scientists called attractors. Deep grooves or strong attractors are very stable and reliable patterns that can be hard to change. We must pay attention, understand what we are doing, explore other options, move in different ways, and sense the effects of our actions in order to allow ourselves to organize new ways of behaving. Along the way, at times we feel confused or unsteady; soon, we have developed reliable alternatives to our deep grooves.

In addition to changes in existing habits, the usefulness of dynamic systems theory in understanding the acquisition of new behaviors has been demonstrated in many studies of infants learning to walk and learning to reach. A leader in this line of research was Esther Thelen, Ph.D. She and her Indiana University colleague, Linda Smith, authored a research-based book in 1994 (A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action) that caught the attention of several highly experienced Feldenkrais® practitioners. Soon, a mutually enriching exchange began that ended all too soon with Dr. Thelen’s death in 2004. I was fortunate to do my doctoral studies at IU and have the opportunity to work with Dr. Thelen. She clearly saw the connections between her research and the Feldenkrais Method, and became a practitioner herself. I told her she already knew the science behind the Feldenkrais Method; she just needed to learn the applications, the techniques, and the repertoire of elegant lessons that Dr. Feldenkrais devised. She looked forward to continuing her work with infants and children as a Feldenkrais practitioner after she retired from IU, but never realized that dream.

In 2005, the Feldenkrais® Educational Foundation of North America (FEFNA) established the Esther Thelen, Ph.D., G.C.F.P. Research and Education Fund to honor Dr. Thelen’s contributions to the Feldenkrais Method and to promote “principled scientific inquiry, professional and personal development, and translational actions that foster societal change”. This young fund awarded its first grant to support research by Gerhild Ulmann, which was completed recently at the University of South Carolina. Her study demonstrated the benefits of a series of Awareness Through Movement® lessons in improving the balance and mobility of older adults. Currently, the Thelen Fund is eager to launch a website that will facilitate collaboration and networking among Feldenkrais practitioners, scientists, and scholars. This Feldenkrais Science Network, or FeldSciNet, should be a great tool for continuing the dialogue between scientists and practitioners that Esther Thelen began fifteen years ago. The scientific community, Feldenkrais practitioners, and most importantly, students and clients will all benefit from expanding our understanding of the science behind the Feldenkrais Method.

To learn more about the science behind the Feldenkrais Method, visit: http://www.feldenkrais.com/resources/bibliography/, where you will find a list of interesting research studies. Two recent books that tell the stories behind many of the recent developments in neuroscience and that support the principles of the Feldenkrais Method are: Sharon Begley’s 2008 Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves, and Norman Doidge’s 2007, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.

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