Posture, Attitude and the Autonomic Nervous System

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Do you ever get a hunch that certain ideas or phenomena are related, but you’re not sure of the nature of the relationship? The purpose of this post is to mull on three different ideas to see why they seem to resonate together so well. It may be simply that they share a similar structure (which always makes mapping things onto each other both easy and tempting), but I think their connections may turn out to be stronger than that.

I’ll outline each first, then tease out the relationships between them.

  1. Expanding versus Contracting postures. This is a formulation proposed by the pianist Harold Taylor, drawing on his studies of Alexander Technique. I’ve already written about this conception in the second half of this post from last year; to summarise – these are prevailing physical and mental states which tend either towards coordination or to pulling ourselves out of shape.
  2. Curiosity versus Fear. Curiosity is the impetus that draws our attention out into the world, beyond our comfort zone, and fear holds us back. There are competing theories as to whether these urges are inherent drives or whether they are responses to our environment. Likewise psychologists draw distinctions between the tendency for an individual to default to one or the other (trait curiosity/fear) versus experiencing either temporarily in a specific circumstance (state curiosity/fear).
  3. Parasympathetic versus Sympathetic nervous systems. These are two components of the autonomic nervous system, and they respectively control the physiological processes nicknamed the rest-digest and fight-flight responses. Again, I've written about these already.

So you can see why I’m getting interested in these relationships. We have one physiological system, one psychological system, and a third that considers the two together. All three are essentially homeostatic in nature: at any one moment one may be tending to one pole or the other, but the other pole is always on duty, ready to bring us back into balance. Indeed, generally, we are at neither end of any of the scales – balance here is an active metaphor, capturing the constant minor adjustments of the tight-rope walker rather than the stable quantities of the scales.

Items 1 and 3 seem to have a relationship inasmuch as the biochemistry of the autonomic nervous system promotes tension versus relaxation. A dose of adrenaline not only promotes muscular tension, but also closes in the perception to a narrow focus. The parasympathetic nervous system opens out our perception so seems consonant with the breadth of awareness associated with an expanding posture.

Items 2 and 3 also seem to have a biochemical relationship through adrenaline. Fear is the emotional experience of the flight part of the sympathetic response. I’m not sure how much the parasympathetic nervous system is related to curiosity, however. It would seem that we’re more likely to reach out into the world in a state of mild arousal – I may be stereotyping here from its nickname, but the rest-digest response seems more suited to a snooze on the sofa than to working out how to dismantle the brakes on your bicycle.

Items 1 and 2 are related in that the physical response to alarm is to contract – what the Alexander Technique people call ‘pulling down’. There’s a classic series of pictures of a young man having an extreme startle reaction that shows how all the muscles in the neck and upper back contract, pulling his head back and down and his shoulder blades in. I couldn’t find it online to show you, but Homer Simpson is prepared to demonstrate for us instead. Again, I’m not sure how well the other poles match up, although the expanding posture promotes awareness, so is at least consistent with curiosity.

I think my conclusion is that I was right to perceive a good deal of resonance between these three areas. And looking at them together does allow each to shed light on the others. But they don’t map onto each other all that neatly – you can’t collapse them into one summarising pairing and substitute that for all three.

The clearest area of overlap is at the end where fear, contraction and the sympathetic nervous system interact. And since coaxing someone out of tension and anxiety into a more relaxed and open state (both physically and mentally) is a task that those of us involved in teaching or coaching music face with moderate frequency, I think it can help to have an understanding of the different dimensions along which this coaxing may need to take place. It may help someone relax if we can engage their curiosity; they make take a more willing interest in things that stretch them if we can help them adjust the mix of hormonal stew away from adrenaline towards serotonin.

Great article, Liz. One way to balance curiosity with fear as well as to bring equanamity to the 2 nervous systems; invite relaxation whilst at the same time strengthening the muscles you use to sing is through breathing exercises. When the flow of breathing is interrupted, concentration is broken and the flow of awareness progresses in jumps and starts. Smoothing out the transitions brings a sense of effortless breathing and relaxes the nervous system and mind. And when the flow of breathing is made seamless, concentration deepens and the mind rests. This continuous breathing calms mental agitation, awakens a process of inner self-observation (is this curiosity or is it fear?) and reduces distractions. This is the foundation for another sort of music - the lyricism of a collected, relaxed and concentrated mind bathed in serotonin!

Thanks for these thoughts, Trish - really helpful. I love the interlinking of mental continuity and the flow of breath. And the way you write about it is itself calming.

If you're looking to harmonize body & mind, the breath is the link you're looking for. "The Breathing Book" by Donna Farhi is a wonderful resource of information and techniques to use to feel and find breath so you can utilise it to fine tune and play this instrument that is our body/mind complex.

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