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Embodying Neuroscience: A Long Time Coming, Well Worth the Wait

By Pat Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT, Chair, Esther Thelen Research Committee


Forty years ago, Moshe Feldenkrais thought that the organization of the brain’s neurons, including the movements related to those neural patterns, would change in response to activity. In Awareness Through Movement, he wrote that “the area for the third finger would be larger in a person who has learned to play a musical instrument than in one who has not.” Thinking that the brain was changeable and plastic across the life span was rare at that time. It took more than thirty years for neuroscience to confirm Dr. Feldenkrais’ hypothesis; brain imaging technology allowed researchers to demonstrate the proposed effect in musicians.


Feldenkrais’ perspective that behavior emerges from and is influenced by the interactions among sensing, moving, feeling and thinking was also revolutionary. Late in the 20th century and into the 21st century, a distinctive group of movement scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, biologists, philosophers and health care providers found common ground in challenging long held beliefs about the innate primacy of the nervous system in directing human behavior. Instead, a more integrative, interactive understanding of behavior gradually took hold and continues to develop.

From this perspective, the nervous system is situated within a body within an environment that share responsibility for the development and emergence of human behavior, whether a human is acquiring those behaviors for the first time, recovering from illness or injury, or adapting to the changes that come with life. This common ground is not yet the predominantly held ground, but it resonates with those who find the reductionist, dualistic perspective of much of western science unsatisfying.

This Labor Day, the 2012 Esther Thelen Research Symposium and Feldenkrais Method® Annual Conference offer a landmark opportunity to learn from and dialogue with some of the ground breaking scientists and scholars who have fostered this change in viewpoint. Several of them were colleagues of Esther Thelen, developmental psychologist and Feldenkrais® Practitioner. Esther had a major impact on bringing embodied, interrelated, and integrated dynamic systems theory to bear on our understanding human development.

Under the auspices of the Feldenkrais Educational Foundation of North America and the Esther Thelen Research Committee, The Esther Thelen Research and Education Fund is proud to sponsor the Esther Thelen Research Symposium and collaborate with the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America in creating a very special Annual Conference with the unifying theme Embodying Neuroscience: the Feldenkrais Method in Human Development, Performance and Health. These events reflect Esther Thelen’s commitment to principled scientific inquiry, professional and personal development, and translational actions that foster societal change.
Both the Symposium and the Conference are open to Feldenkrais Practitioners, professionals in related disciplines, and the general public. We truly have a world-class line up of informative and thought provoking presenters for the Research Symposium.

Michael Turvey, professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, was one of a group of highly influential scientists at UConn that introduced Esther Thelen and countless others to the work of Nicholai Bernstein, J. J. Gibson, and the principles of dynamic systems theory and ecological psychology. No longer does understanding and examining behavior depend on the maturation of the nervous system and its innate programs to inadequately explain the amazing and evolving range of the human repertoire. Instead, physical properties that explain the emergence of weather patterns can also describe the self-organization of human behavior and that of other living organisms.

Georg Striedter, professor at the University of California-Irvine, will ground us in an evolutionary perspective on the human brain that clarifies the development of the distinctive learning capabilities of humans.

•Jane Clark, professor at the University of Maryland-College Park, and Jill Whitall, professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore, collaborated on many of the early developmental studies of human movement that used principles of the new movement science theories.

oDr. Clark will share insights from her work with typically developing children and those with developmental coordination disorder.

oDr. Whitall will offer lessons from her research on the recovery of arm function in people who have had strokes. 

Both will address issues of variability, individuality, and processes of change in a way that should be informative and satisfying to non-reductionists/science skeptics and offer practical insights to practitioners.

Catherine Kerr, assistant professor at Brown University, will talk about her research on brain changes in response to various mindfulness/awareness practices, including meditation and Tai Chi, which are reflected in neuroimaging studies.

Wolf Mehling, physician and associate professor at the University of California-San Francisco, will discuss his research of body awareness. In particular, he will consider the challenges of doing rigorous studies that use methods appropriate for the integrated, non-reductionist perspectives of practices such as the Feldenkrais Method.

Alva Noë, professor at the University of California-Berkeley, will bring us full circle with the philosopher’s point of view on embodiment and argue that “you are not your brain.” Instead, consciousness arises at the intersection of brain, body and world.
Symposium attendees will have numerous opportunities for discussion with presenters and one another throughout the two days. In addition, researchers will share their recent projects through posters that will be on display throughout the Symposium and into the Conference. Nine very talented Feldenkrais Practitioners will close the circle with the Symposium by offering workshops in the Conference that extend the presenters’ themes onto the floor and table. They join many more colleagues in constructing a rich week long opportunity for learning and networking.

To bridge the Symposium and the Conference, we are thrilled to have the eminent neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California-San Francisco and Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science, deliver the keynote address. Dr. Merzenich has made numerous contributions to neuroscience, including advances in the use of microelectrodes that dramatically improved our understanding that the sensorimotor maps depicting the organization of the brain change in response to experience, and applications of neuroplasticity to improve cognitive abilities across the life span.

Readers may know Dr. Merzenich from the chapter about him in The Brain That Changes Itself, or from his prominent role in the PBS show, “Brain Fitness.” Dr. Merzenich will talk about: his connection with Esther Thelen, the implications of animal and human research for clinical settings from a neurological perspective, and the translation of researchers’ work to the work of Feldenkrais Practitioners as well as other educators and health care providers.

I truly believe this year’s Research Symposium and Annual Conference will be pivotal events for the Feldenkrais Method, its practitioners, students, and beyond. Have you ever thought that the Feldenkrais Method is the best thing since sliced bread and wondered what the ingredients are that make it so special? Have you wished that researchers, practitioners, and students could talk to one another and learn from each other? Have you speculated how the neurosciences and integrative applications such as the Feldenkrais Method could inform each other and benefit your life? This week’s proceedings will clarify many of the organic processes underlying the Feldenkrais Method and provide opportunities to seek answers to these and many more questions. What more can I say, but to invite you to join us this summer in the San Francisco Bay Area for these very special events in the history of the Feldenkrais Method.

Check out the Symposium and Conference Programs:
For the Public

For Feldenkrais Practitioners and Trainees

Registration opens in late April.

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