Inhibit is an old word, going back via French to Latin, with a heavy legal weight of ‘forbidding’ about it. The meaning can soften a bit towards restraining or preventing. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it comes into scientific use, in particular, in physiology. Here is a definition of inhibition from 1883, “the arrest of the functions of a structure or organ by the action upon it of another while its power to execute those functions is still retained and can be manifested as soon as the restraining power is removed”. Please note the idea of restraining, postponing. It went together with the then current theory of dynamogeny, of a force in the nerves which allowed a common nature to be recognised in sensory and motor nerves. Sense impressions were thought of as bringing about “movements” in the central nervous system which were experienced as stimulation and pleasure. The idea of enzymes in natural processes, catalysts which speeded up chemical reactions in, for example, fermentation, was becoming established. As the ideas of “animal spirits” or “vital forces” were being countered or replaced by an understanding of life based solely on physical and chemical processes, there was a need to bring in a principle of control at the organic level.
Why this word matters so much to my purposes is that it has been such an important word in the development of what we call the Alexander Technique. If I were to write a description of the Alexander Technique on the back of a postcard then it would include the concept of, if not the word, inhibiting, as one of only two key specific uses of language connected with F M Alexander – the other being “direction”. My description might well not use the word ‘inhibition’ or ‘inhibit’ because in our time the word is associated with being stiff, unnatural, self-conscious, the very qualities which I believe the Alexander Technique is working to overcome. However, these are the qualities which the Alexander Technique can, temporarily, stimulate as one learns, so the pitfalls of the word “inhibit” are doubly deep. I am wanting to channel the instinctual or unconscious energy, not bottle it up, hold it in [“hold in” is the basic etymology of ‘inhibit’].
I want to present to you some of F M Alexander’s own words about ‘inhibiting’, but before doing that I would like to bring up to date the use of the word ‘inhibition’. In pharmacology we find it much used; many people will be familiar with it from the description of the actions of medicines. Here the older idea of slowing down, restraining is still to the fore. But in studies of human development, inhibition has taken on a more subtle meaning. Take the set of “primitive” reflexes which the perinatal human infant demonstrates. These are a sequence of involuntary responses, which are essential for the baby’s survival and prepare the child for later, voluntary skills. Normally they become inhibited during the first months of life. If they don’t, then later motor and intellectual abilities do not come about. As the child develops new interactions, then new movements contain within them inhibitory effects on previously existing reflexes. The first, reflex, function becomes integrated within a second, perhaps also a reflex, eventually leading to voluntary skill and action. As successive patterns of response are incorporated, previous ones disappear but are not discarded and not repressed. The primitive reflexes can re-emerge, for instance in Alzheimer’s disease, but the natural sequence of reflex inhibition demonstrates a process more subtle and alive that one chemical process being, simply, stopped by another. Inhibition, in behaviour, suggests growth and development. This is also the meaning Alexander gave the word a hundred years ago.
In Alexander’s first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance (1910), he is keen to get away from the desire to get things right, and in this endeavour inhibition has a crucial part in helping to overcome apprehension. The pupil “is doing what is wrong. Obviously he should begin then by ceasing to do what is wrong, not by endeavouring blindly to do what is right” (p 157). Alexander says, in this situation, the ordinary human being has “lost the habit of inhibition”; instead we renew our efforts to put something right, resulting in more undue physical tension. The teacher has an important role in not stimulating this undue effort: “If you mention that he did a certain thing when you placed your hands on him, he will make an endeavour physically to prevent himself the next time” (p. 159). So, inhibition is not the exertion of a force to prevent something happening: that is just increasing the tension and the apprehension. It is activity by which the pupil is enabled to “be really once more in communication with his reason”.
In Alexander’s next book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, the inhibitory act is linked to the following volitional act. This is made clear in Chapter 4, “Illustration”, one of the few occasions on which Alexander described in detail his teaching procedures. Inhibition is not something imposed from without, and is the essential act allowing us to get beyond symptoms such as a stiff neck, to the cause which will lie in our behaviour. “The stimulus to inhibit, therefore, in this case, comes from within and is not forced on the pupil. This means that the pupil’s desires will be satisfied, not thwarted, and that desirable emotional and other psycho-physical conditions will be present which do not make for what is known as suppression in any form.” (p 124) So, as the title of Alexander’s Third Book The Use of the Self might suggest, inhibition is an essential component in action: the refusing to respond in the habitual way (which had led to narrowing of focus, hurry, effort, discomfort, pain) becomes, is integrated into, is transformed into, the act of responding in a freely willed way. This is the whole self at work.
In one of the few detailed records of lectures which F M Alexander gave (the lecture given at Bedford Training Course in 1934) there is a lovely, relaxed presentation of how impossible it is to induce, by instruction, changes in a pupil with the aim of putting something right. Alexander is identifying the crux of the process as “giving consent”, or withholding consent, the process of decision making. The act of inhibiting, of not responding, brings us in, as agents, into our activities, and leads into the conscious giving of consent and on further into activity imbued with active thinking. In a later lecture from which notes remain (from 1949 when Alexander was 80) he is more insistent than ever about inhibition: “The great thing is inhibition. You may think that when you ask a person to sit down and they don’t [do it] immediately, that they are not doing anything, but they are doing a great deal.” Here Alexander is referring to the more physiological aspect of inhibition which I referred to at the beginning of this essay. But he was always concerned to see how mind and body integrated. In one of his earliest publications (1903) he had written about “motive power”, and in his final book The Universal Constant in Living (1941) he, in a passage I find very interesting, speaks about motivation and learning (Ch 11). Alexander is always wanting to bring us back to “that use and functioning of the self as the instrument of learning and learning to do”, and that the necessary step towards active self-knowledge, or learning, is to develop the ability ”to inhibit the habitual (automatic) reaction to the stimuli of daily living, which, as I have been teaching since the beginning, must be inhibited before any such fundamental change can be brought about.” The chapter begins with a quotation from Herbert Morrison – “It is an irony that man, so skilled in learning, should be so stupid in living”. Fundamentally, Alexander’s emphasis on inhibition is suggesting a shift in the skill of learning that will help us to be less stupid in living. Inhibiting is the foundation of learning, and Alexander was, above all, a great teacher. We practice not reacting followed by moving into action until these two states of being are present within each other. We can bridge the gap between learning and living.