The faulty co-ordination of our bodies is probably the least obvious, the least known, and yet one of the most potent causes of modern disease, modern abnormality, modern nervous debility and exhaustion, and modern madness; and for my text in discussing this cause of modern degeneration, I shall use the two well-known books of Mr. F. M. Alexander, 2 who is undoubtedly the pioneer and most genial discoverer in the whole of this field of latter-day diagnostics.
2 Man’s Supreme Inheritance (Methuen, 1910) and Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (Methuen, 1924).
Briefly stated, Mr. Alexander’s diagnosis is as follows: He says, and has, moreover, proved, that owing to the repeated extensive disturbances of the harmony between man and his environment, which have been brought about by the too rapid changes of civilization, probably from the time of the first application of fire to metals down to the present day, man’s equipment in instincts has been unable to deal adequately with the daily aggravated problem of adaptation, and the grievous result has been that his instinctive reactions are no longer reliable and lead to a harmful use of himself in almost everything he does.
Mr. Alexander, therefore, asks these searching and disconcerting questions: Are our instinctive reactions to environment any longer reliable? And, if they are not, have we any other means of reacting to environment?
He answers the first question with a flat negative. The modern man standing on the pavement of his streets, and about to walk; or reclining in an easy chair and about to get up; or using a tennis racquet or a golf stick, still depends on his old instinctive mechanisms and muscular sense to perform the actions that are required of him. Although he has not had time to re-educate his instincts correctly, to perform the many complicated actions demanded of him by civilization, and to modify his primitive form of reacting so that it may be suited to the new requirements — for the development of a new instinct is a long and laborious process, and requires a stable environment for its fulfilment — he has no choice but to react and to react quickly to his present circumstances; for life is action. And, since he has to fall back upon instinctive reflexes which were cultivated in him for a different and more simple purpose — a purpose long ago buried with his vanished ancestors — he reacts wrongly, cannot well help reacting wrongly, and by so doing proceeds to a faulty use of himself.
By a faulty use of himself, Mr. Alexander understands a use which causes unnecessary strain, constant constriction, absence of proper co ordination, maladjustment, pressure, irritation, and deforming habits.
Under the constant influence of this faulty use, his thoracic capacity, for instance, becomes unduly and perniciously limited, his heart becomes harmfully hemmed in, his spine becomes distorted, his muscular co ordination is seriously impaired, and violence is repeatedly done to a complicated and delicate structure, which, though it possesses wonderful recuperative power, must ultimately suffer from such continued ill usage. Truth to tell, in time, this ill usage and the disorders in the functioning of his body to which they give rise cannot help manifesting themselves in the form of diseases; and since the true cause of these diseases — wrong functioning as the result of the faulty use of self — is not known, the diseases are treated specifically and separately, as if they were independent disturbances of a part which bore no relation to the rest of the system.
The faulty use, according to Mr. Alexander, now begins in early childhood. Indeed, through this faulty use having been practised by modern man’s forbears, children are actually born with the inherited results of their parents’ ignorance, and one of these inherited disadvantages, long recognized but unexplained by modern medicine, is what is known as a low respiratory need — that is to say, an inadequate breathing capacity, which in itself alone is responsible for all the evil consequences of an imperfect oxidation of the blood.
It is difficult, without having had visual demonstration and personal experience of the nature of this faulty use, to grasp the gravity of the conditions it creates, and the extent of their complicated ramifications; for one of its most serious consequences is the perversion of consciousness, the debauching of the muscular sense, or sensory appreciation of the individual, so that he no longer knows that he is wrong, so that he no longer feels his wrongness, and requires a long period of time to become convinced of it. Even when he has studied Mr. Alexander’s works, he may remain unaware, as I did, for instance, of their application to his own life; and it is only when he has been shown this application by a few simple tests carried out upon his own person by Mr. Alexander himself, that he begins to understand not only the extreme unreliability of his instinctive reactions, but also the extent to which this unreliability forces him to a constantly harmful expression of his vital energy.
To the modern world, with its sophisticated belief in the desirability of a “return to Nature,” it seems odd that our instincts should be declared no longer reliable, and that they should have ceased to guide us correctly in our daily movements and thoughts. But if we attempt to examine the question more narrowly, we come to the conclusion that it would surely be very much more odd if, despite the extreme complication, rapid changes and artificiality of our lives, they had remained as trustworthy as they once undoubtedly were. What modern man would maintain that he has a reliable instinct, or that modern man in general has a reliable instinct, regarding the choice of foods, regarding the simple correctives for transient disturbances of his system, regarding threatened changes in the weather, or regarding the reading of any other obscure sign which the animals and the savage read with ease? If, however, he acknowledges the unreliability of his instinct in these matters, and ascribes it to the fact that he has not had time to re-educate himself to correct instinctive reaction in a complex and too rapidly changing environment, why should he suppose that his instincts are reliable in any other respect? Why, for instance, should they have remained reliable in the matter of the use of his body as a mechanical contrivance, for which there is only one right method and an infinite number of wrong methods of use?
But, fortunately, Mr. Alexander does not rely on dialectics for carrying his point. He has demonstrated, and is prepared to demonstrate again, to hundreds of people who imagine themselves quite well and properly controlled, the fact that they are not only using themselves wrongly, but also that the consequences of their wrong use are already apparent upon them, and cannot fail, sooner or later, to lead to distressing results. And, since the consequences of wrong use, in addition to leading to organic diseases and lowered vitality, may also mean the advent of those more obscure afflictions of modern times which are loosely classed under such different heads as neurasthenia, nervous debility, morbid and free automatisms, insomnia, premature senility, etc., the first demonstration a man is given of his own wrong use of himself is probably the most startling revelation it is possible for him to experience at the present day. As I am one of those fortunate people who have enjoyed the privilege of having, in good time, experienced such a dramatic demonstration, conducted by Mr. Alexander on myself, I presume that I am qualified to speak with some authority on this matter, and I may say that I could never have imagined its apocalyptic effect. It left me convinced that the claim made by Mr. Alexander, that an enormous amount of our present degeneration is due to a perfectly unconscious, but very wrong, use of self, by every individual, probably constituted one of the most constructive pieces of diagnosis and criticism that has been given to the world for many scores of years.
This may sound an extravagant statement, particularly as it comes from a layman, not qualified to speak with authority on a matter so important and so far reaching. But fortunately I am not alone in claiming what I do claim about Mr. Alexander’s diagnosis. There are now grouped around him many eminent medical men and scientists who are prepared to vindicate his claim, and what is more, to help in achieving its ultimate acceptance by the world at large. And when I add that Mr. Alexander’s discoveries, although quite original, have in part been scientifically and independently made by such distinguished investigators as Professor R. Magnus 1 and Sir Charles Sherrington, 2 I need say no more about their importance.
1 See Körperstellung (Julius Springer Verlag, Berlin, 1924).
2 See The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, 1916.
Mr. Alexander, however, does not stop at his profound analysis of modern degeneration, he has developed an educational technique by means of which he can not only rectify our faulty use of ourselves and chasten our corrupted sensory appreciation, but also restore to us the lost key to correct reaction to environment, which consists in the recovery of a central control of all our actions. 3 But I am anticipating. This part of Mr. Alexander’s work properly belongs to the next chapter.
3 Speaking of Mr. Alexander’s discovery for restoring the central control to man, Dr. Peter Macdonald writes: “I regard Mr. Alexander’s work as quite the biggest thing in the evolution of medicine since the days of Pasteur. . . . For while Pasteur’s work aimed at the prevention of access to the individual of the infection of germ-conveyed disease, Alexander’s aims include the building-up of a physique which will make the body of the individual resistant to disease, both infectious and non-infectious.”
The special importance of Mr. Alexander’s contribution to modern diagnostics is this, that our age is one in which the physical deterioration of humanity is a fact well known to all, and the consequence is that a big movement is on foot to attempt to correct by every conceivable means the disordered functioning that plagues and burdens human life at every turn. Now among the most universally recommended means of recovering efficient bodily functioning, the most popular are those which consist in directing modern man to the adoption of all kinds of exercises, out of door gymnastics, strenuous games, deep breathing etc. — pastimes which, because they are redolent of a “return to Nature,” seem to be obviously right and promising.
But, if the whole of our urban populations, who are already using themselves wrongly, are driven in despair to exercises, sports and games, without first having been taught a correct use of themselves, what will be the result? What cannot help being the result? By an intensification of their output of energy in a wrong way, they will simply aggravate troubles which, with less exercise and less sport, would take longer to break them up. Indeed this is exactly what is happening already; and the statistics of heart trouble, which now heads all other diseases in the casualties it claims, show that Mr. Alexander’s diagnosis is correct. 1 It is the heart that chiefly suffers from ill-usage, and to recommend sport, games and exercises to people whose wrong functioning requires correcting, when all the time that wrong functioning has been brought about by a faulty use of themselves, is not very far removed from recommending universal suicide.
1 See Vital Statistics, p. 368. Of a list of thirteen causes of death, including cancer which accounts for 9.4 per cent. of deaths, tuberculosis which accounts for 9.1 per cent. and pneumonia 8 per cent., heart disease stands highest with 11.4 per cent of total mortality from all causes.