-bringing ideas to life

 

 

 

 



Experiencing the Embodied Mind

An interdisciplinary workshop with scientists and Alexander Technique teachers

October 7th -12th 2013 -Gargonza (Arezzo, Italy),
Program Chairs: Rachel Zahn and Prof. Massimo Bergamasco

Report by Pia Quaet-Faslem and Michael Vogler
Translation: Bridget Gerstner, AnTrans

In February 2012 a 3-day-long meeting -originally initiated by Rachel Zahn -was held between Alexander Technique teachers and cognitive scientists in Paris. One of the participants, Prof. Massimo Bergamasco, Founder of PERCRO (Perceptual  Robotics) Laboratory, Pisa approached Rachel after the meeting. Fascinated by AT, he offered to support future collaboration.

This resulted in the interdisciplinary workshop, held from October 7th -12th 2013 in Italy, under the title "Experiencing the Embodied Mind: High performance psychophysical expertise, subjectivity research, and brain-computer technology". So what exactly was this workshop about?

Rachel's Vision:

Rachel's Vision is to liberate Alexander Technique from its niche existence and make it relevant for the challenges of our modern society. 

  • Over the past two decades, a paradigm shift has been taking place in the field of cognitive science. The more than 300-year old division between the "mind" which was considered to be the essential identity of a person and the body, which was thought to be a necessary mechanism of life (but full of unreliable sensory data), has become the leading edge debate in the field of "consciousness study". Today, the "Enactive" or "Embodied Mind" school of cognitive science insists that the body is far more significant than a mode of transportation to carry the mind from home to the philosophical faculty of the university. AT is the practical side of this -or, as one of the participants in the Paris workshop expressed it: "We are writing about it, you guys are doing it!" So, the intention is to bring about an exchange of ideas with the leading representatives from this field, so that we have a real chance to liberate our work from its niche world.

  • Our society and our daily lives are influenced increasingly by technology -whether we want it or not. If engineers and technical experts are able to have a different experience of a psychopysical self through AT, this will resonate in their ways of performing research or in the technology they develop. Having contact with the PERCRO team, for example, gives us access to leading researchers/technical experts from the fields of virtual reality and robotics, who have shown an interest in Alexander Technique.

  • All this requires contacts and exchange of ideas. We need to be willing and able to create a common platform of values and language with our counterparts.

  • If we manage this, we will be able to increase our influence. This is not with an aim to manipulating but instead, so that we can introduce the body-mind unity, inhibition and non-doing to science and technology, while helping to shape the society in which we live.

 

The PERCRO team:

The workshop began with a meeting in the Perceptual Robotics Laboratory (PERCRO) in Pisa, which was originally founded by Prof. Bergamasco who now heads the department of Mind Sciences.

The "mind sciences" group there focuses on applying technologies, such as virtual reality and robotics, to:

 

  • Create new means of methodology for the neurosciences and

  • Implement these technologies for training (e.g. in sports) and rehabilitation.
    We were invited to experience for ourselves the way in which "subjective experience" can be simulated using technology, in a virtual reality cave, which guided us through virtually restored buildings. An movable chair and a pair of data glasses, which simulated our "walking" showed us how easy it is to outwit the human brain. Synchronous processing of visual, motion and haptic information created a feeling of walking while still sitting in a chair!

 

The actual conference was held in Gargonza, approx. 2.5 hours from Pisa. During the week there, Prof. Bergamasco and six scientists from PERCRO examined the question:

"How can subjectively perceivable changes within a person, as are created in AT lessons, be objectively measured?"  

The laboratory equipment available included:

  • A motion tracking system (3D capture of motion)

  • EEG caps (recording of brain activity)

  • Powerful computers to store and process all this data.

 

Gargonza -the perfect setting:

Gargonza is a tiny, Medieval village which was restored in the 1970s and converted into a hotel complex. This created a pleasantly private and intense atmosphere.


Our rooms were spread throughout the various buildings and we were given a large conference room for presentations and work exchange. It was a location full of impressive character and beauty. Breakfast and coffee breaks were taken near the conference room (on sunny days in the garden); lunch and dinner were in a restaurant at the foot of the hill. We formed new groups each mealtime so that it was easy to talk to all the different participants during the week, to enjoy the good food together and conduct both professional and personal conversations at the same time. If anyone is feeling slightly envious or maybe wondering where the donations for Rachel's project ended up, here are a few details:

The donations received to date are in total €4,000.The costs incurred to date (hotel and travel expenses for the organisational and technical team -5 people, insurance for camera equipment, memory cards, hard drive, transportation, telephone and Skype charges) are in total €10,500. Additional costs of approx. €8.000 are to be expected for production of a film.

Many thousands of Euros were saved because the camera and organisational team and the team from PERCRO generously made their equipment and time available free of charge (equipment included high-end professional cameras, high-performance computers, laboratory facilities). Not even one Euro was used to cover fees or expenses for the participating AT teachers or scientists (!). Except for the above mentioned organisational and technical team, the AT teachers bore all their own expenses. It was not cheap but there was no-one who regretted even one cent.

 

Those who would like to support the project with a donation can do so here: http://www.alexanderscience.org/embodied-mind-project/donate.html.

Other participants:

The following Alexander Technique teachers were present (in alphabetical order):

  • Erik Bendix (USA),

  • Philippe Cotton (Switzerland),

  • Lisa DeAngelis (USA),

  • Alexander Farkas (USA),

  • Niall Kelly (Ireland),

  • Hedda Mickausch (Germany),

  • Carsten Møller (Denmark),

  • Philip Nessel (Canada),

  • Pia Quaet-Faslem (Germany),

  • Julia Roberts (UK),

  • Stéphane Ryder (France/USA),

  • Monika Scholz (Germany/Italy),

  • Maria Vahervuo (Netherlands/Finland),

  • Michael Vogler (Germany),

  • Rachel Zahn (USA/France)

In addition, several teachers had second areas of responsibility: Rachel Zahn as initiator and on whom the project hinged; Lisa deAngelis as organiser before and during the workshop. Behind the camera we had: Philip Nessel and Stéphane Ryder.

 

Philosophy, Embodiment and Subjectivity Research

We also had leading philosophers with a focus on embodiment and subjectivity research present, such as Prof. Shaun Gallagher (USA), author of: "How the body shapes the mind".

This relatively new branch of research is developing methods and tools for measurement, theories and terms for making personal experience and the close interaction of body and cognition tangible. Topics handled in the presentations included:

 "How do extreme sportsmen/women experience their actions?", "How do people who have been physically handicapped by palsy from birth experience their handicap?", "Can a feeling of awe be created  within the boundaries of an experiment?".

A great wealth of knowledge and a vibrant research community exists in this field - the ideal counterparts for us AT teachers, to generate a fruitful collaboration.
 

You can find the list of invited researchers here:

http://www.percro.org/embodied2013/invited-researchers

 

Other Mind-Body Experts:

Other participants included: two osteopaths (France) and a Zen roshi (France). Two professors for physiotherapy (Norway) were unable to attend due to ill health. Another AT teacher, Neil Roberts, contributed his experience as a scientist and expert for magnetic resonance imaging procedures (presentation of brain activity through MRI examinations) to the conference.

The Camera Team

A camera and sound team recorded the entire workshop on video. Their work was conducted so professionally and non-obtrusively in the background that it was hardly noticed by the participants. The goal is to produce another documentary film. We look forward to seeing the extent to which this really exceptional spirit of mutual interest and exchange comes across.

 

Daily schedule

The whole workshop was wonderfully prepared. There was a structured schedule for each day which still left enough scope to react with flexibility to the changing needs of the group.

The day was filled with a lively alternation of talks, practical work and group discussions:

At 9:00 am all participants gathered in the conference room. After a short briefing for the day, three or four presentations or a panel discussion were held between 9:15 and 10:40 am.

Topics included:

  • "Phenomenological vocabularies for embodied practices" (Shaun Gallagher)

  • "Spinal curves and spirals in the context of an AT lesson" (Erik Bendix, Lisa deAngelis)

  • "MoCap, EEG and Virtual Environments for interpersonal communication" (Emmanuele Ruffaldi, PERCRO).

 

After a 20-minuite coffee break, we had 2x30 minutes time for practical Alexander work from 11:00 -12:00. A list, which assigned each teacher a scientist as student for each of these intervals, enabled almost everybody to work together during the week. There were tables and chairs and enough room to work at the back of the conference room.

The scientists were in general very open, interested and keen to experiment. The hands-on work led to a deep personal contact and a feeling of mutual trust -the room was filled with an atmosphere of intense and highly concentrated peace.

During the feedback session on Friday, a PERCRO scientist revealed: "I know that there is a huge amount for me to discover -but I have been given a taste of what could be, the Alexander Technique, a taste of what is possible."

Around 12:10 we had half an hour for a "World Café", hosted by Niall Kelly. In groups of 4-6 persons, we discussed and reflected on the experiences of the morning and then collected this information together. These discussions often continued during the lunch break.

Following the lunch break, we continued at 15:00, with one or two presentations or demonstrations and then from 16:00 -16:40 with more practical Alexander work. After a coffee break, we had another talk at 17:00 and finished with a second "World Café". The conference day ended at 18:10, usually with a brief summary and organisational outline for the next day. Lisa deAngelis displayed great patience in always reminding us of the schedule so that we were disciplined enough to have sufficient time for all the planned talks and individual work.

During the time before dinner, many AT teachers met for a practical exchange between colleagues.

The evening was taken up with dinner. We were in Italy, after all...

The Laboratory Examination

Parallel to this, data analysis was being conducted in the PERCRO laboratory: The following data was recorded: brain activity with the help of EEG caps and motion patterns/changes with a motion tracking system.  

  • One teacher/student-team was prepared for the examination. We put on overalls with reflective markers for recording our movements. The electrodes in the EEG caps had to be individually made conductive and tested.

  • An initial recording of standard movements was made.

  • This was followed by the teachers giving lessons and indicating when (without the pupils noticing, so that they were not influenced), in their opinions, an intense contact to the pupil was created or when they were able to detect a release of tensions. The scientists wanted to investigate whether this was connected to certain patterns of brain activity.

  • Finally, the same movements performed at the beginning were repeated and recorded. The question was whether there were any before-after changes.

The main aim was to collect practical experiences for ascertaining which methods are useful and suitable for Alexander Technique. Prof. Ruffaldi (team leader) expected the first analyses to be available by the end of the year.

What exactly did this week bring?

  • The participants had individual lessons 2-3 times a day and were impressed.

  • Osteopaths and AT teachers came together, not with animosity or competitive mindsets but with mutual respect and great interest.

  • Engineers who develop rehabilitation technology had a totally new experience of the mind-body unity and learnt to appreciate it.

  • AT teachers had the opportunity to learn about the potential and limits of various measurement methods.

  • 15 AT teachers from different countries, who, in general, had previously only been in contact via Skype, formed a fantastically creative, humorous and impressive team. A real dialogue took place between technical experts and Alexander Technique teachers, which had a positive effect on the execution of the experiments.

  • There was an almost unbelievable spirit of attention, mutual (!) interest and openness present.

It was primarily the impressive level of interest and trust which enhanced the mutual collaboration across the disciplines and made this week such as exceptional experience. The foundation has been laid for future collaboration. Thank you Rachel, thank you everybody!

P.S. Michael Vogler, Berlin set up a mailing list in May 2013, through which he reports about Rachel Zahn's work at irregular intervals. If you would like to be added to this list, please send a mail to: michael.vogler@gmx.com

 

© Pia Quaet-Faslem and Michael Vogler 2013 

Translation: © Bridget Gerstner 2013





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