Practical Science on Movement and Pain

Ideomotion Part Three: How to Elicit Corrective Movement

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In parts one and two of this series I discussed Barrett Dorko’s interesting theory that ideomotion can prevent and reduce many sources of chronic pain. To briefly summarize, ideomotion is a non voluntary movement prompted by mental activity. All mental and emotional activity is coupled with motor commands that will be inhibited or physically expressed to different degrees. When pain occurs, it is simultaneously coupled with motor commands that are intelligently designed to reduce pain of mechanical origin.

The problem is that the brain has many thoughts and emotions and only one body to express them. Thus, when two mental representations seek antagonistic movements, there is the potential for physical conflict and inhibition of one of the movements. Dorko hypothesizes that the corrective movements produced by pain are often inhibited by other mental activity, the most likely culprit being mental activity devoted to social concerns. For example, the social need to use appropriate body language could inhibit corrective movements that would send the wrong signals. (Watch the video below of corrective movement in action and you will see why this might not be the kind of thing you would do in a work meeting.)

So, how do we elicit corrective movements that have become inhibited? Dorko’s plan is basically to reverse the conditions that caused the problem in the first place. If the cause of the problem is a social context that inhibits corrective movements, the solution is to create a social context to allow them. The process by which this is done is of course dependent on the individual, but here is the basic plan recommended by Dorko.

First, the therapist should determine whether ideomotor movement will even be useful given the particular type of pain suffered by the client. Dorko distinguishes between three common origins of pain – mechanical, chemical and central. Mechanical pain results from deformation of nervous tissue. The therapist may assume that pain has a mechanical origin if the pain is made better or worse by certain postures or movements. If the pain is completely unaffected by movement, then there is little reason to believe that any kind of movement, ideomotor or otherwise, will help resolve it. But if the client moved their way into this problem, then perhaps they can move their out of it.

Once it is determined that ideomotor movement may help the client, the next step is setting up the proper social context to elicit it. This is done verbally and then with a hands on technique. The verbal part will of course depend to a huge extent on the needs of the client, the stye of the therapist and their relationship. But one way or the other, the therapist should somehow communicate two major ideas: that pain is non-linear and not an accurate measurement of tissue damage; and that the client’s brain has an unconscious talent for solving certain pain problems if it can only be allowed the freedom to do its magic.

The next step is a hands on technique that Dorko calls “simple contact”, and with good reason. He simply puts his hands on the client and then follows whatever movement they make, large or small, without coercing them in any direction whatsoever. Very simple.

The therapist then asks some questions to determine: (1) whether the movements are truly non voluntary and thus ideomotor movements; and (2) whether the ideomotor movements in question are “corrective, i.e. whether they are reducing unnecessary tension and mechanical deformation of nervous tissue. After practicing this technique for many years, Dorko has identified four criteria for determining whether the client will receive benefit from their movements. He calls these the “characteristics of correction” and here is my own description of them and their import.

Two of the characteristics of correction are that the motions in question must feel surprising and effortless. I assume the importance of these criteria is simply that if a movement doesn’t feel surprising and effortless, it probably isn’t ideomotor movement anyway. Recall that ideomotor movement often tricks the mover into thinking that the motion comes from an external source. In fact the client engaged in ideomotion often thinks that the therapist is moving them as opposed to the other way around.

But not all ideomotor movement will correct mechanical deformation leading to pain, and that is where the other two criteria come in. One of these is what Dorko calls softening, which basically means the client’s perception that unnecessary muscular tension has been reduced. Dorko proposes that softening occurs when previously inhibited motor commands are finally expressed. Dorko uses the following example to illustrate. Imagine you feel the desperate need to speak but are terribly afraid to do so. You will likely feel isometric muscular tension in the muscles controlling your speech, a physical manifestation of the two competing thoughts. The only way to release the tension is to speak. Thus, if ideomotor movement results in less tension, that is a sign that you have engaged in a movement that your brain really wanted to make but didn’t feel free to do so until now.

Possibly the most positive characteristic of correction is warming, because that suggests that the movements are correcting the root of the problem – mechanical deformation of nervous tissue. According to Dorko, successful interventions will usually result in the client reporting that a particular part of their body suddenly feels warmer. He reasons that the only source for such warming would be increased blood flow to an area currently suffering anoxia, possibly due to kinking of nerve tissue, or due to an excess of sympathetic tone. In either case, the warming indicates blood flow which is a good thing.

Once the client knows what ideomotor movement feels like, he or she can elicit it on their own by just the conscious act of trying to allow movement in a particular area. My own experience with this is that it is very easy to produce movements that feel completely non voluntary. I will almost always feel “softening”, or release of muscular tension within a only a few seconds, and if I go on longer I will probably feel extremely loose. If I have any pain (which is rare) I can often reduce that as well. I rarely feel any warming, but maybe that’s because I’m not paying attention very well or don’t move long enough to get it. One thing that I find very interesting is that I will definitely feel far greater relief from ideomotion, and far greater need to do it, after a period of stress (such as typing at a computer). My interpretation of this is that the dominant mental representations of getting work done inhibited any corrective movements that could have resolved my developing discomfort. This is certainly good evidence (for me at least) that a brain in conflict leads to a body in tension.

So what does corrective ideomotor movement look like? I asked myself that question for years after reading about it at the somasimple site where Barrett does most of his writing. I asked Barrett and other ideomotor advocates to post a YouTube video of someone engaged in ideomotor activity. No luck! So six weeks ago I got up at 5am to drive from Seattle to Vancouver to see Barrett speak. And within the first hour of the workshop they made the first ever tape of someone doing ideomotion! C’mon! (To be fair, the workshop was excellent and well worth it.)

Here’s the vid, which features Barrett and Michael Reoch, a massage therapist and Canucks fan from Vancouver, who, as far as I know, had absolutely nothing to do with the rioting that occurred there after the last game.

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29 Responses to Ideomotion Part Three: How to Elicit Corrective Movement

  1. Seth says:

    Thanks for another nice description of Barrett’s work. As you know I have been interested in understanding his approach and this third installment of yours helps. The idea of ideomotion being inhibited with two conflicting mental activities makes me think of J.P. Sartre’s term “double-mindedness.” I always thought that if one were double-minded, that is deeply conflicted, that it might produce what Moshe Feldenkrais would call “parasitic” or unnecessary and unproductive muscular effort. Also, Barrett’s idea that trying to adhere to social contraints would lead to an inhibition of ideomotion seems to fit right along with everything Feldenkrias writes in the first half of “Awareness Through Movement.”

    • Seth,

      Great points. I like the term doublemindedness. There are certainly many connections to be made here, including Feldenkrais’ ideas about finding authenticity and maturity.

  2. Hans Holter Solhjell says:

    Have you seen David Bercellis system, TRE, Trauma Release Excersises? He talks about something he calls neurogenic shaking, which seems a lot similar to the concept of ideomotor movement. You can find examples of it on youtube.

    • Hans,

      Thanks for the info. I have not heard of TRE, but I have no doubt that many therapies, physical, emotional or “spiritual” have learned to take advantage of ideomotor movements as part of a healing process. Of course they rarely call the healing mechanism by its true name …

  3. Dave Nolan says:

    Thanks Todd, having lurked on somasimple for a while it is nice to see ideomotion in action. It makes a lot of sense I suspect a lot of therapists do this without knowing about ideomotion. I’m doing some work in Occupational health / movement and handling at the minute and that culture has some funny belief systems about posture and how to lift and bend!!!

  4. Dave Nolan says:

    I’m trying to convince people that actually its not that dangerous to bend your back when you bend over……. the world will not stop spinning and most certainly your disc will not “pop out”

  5. David Nolan says:

    McGill, don’t start me off………… If you have fear avoidance and brace your spine, get it “super stiff”….. utter utter madness.

  6. Seth says:

    OK, OK, at the risk of displaying my ignorance to the whole world wide web, who is McGill? And why should I be scared?

  7. Hello Todd,
    I have an off topic (maybe) question.If you had to read one book on Feldenkrais that would captures it’s essence what would you recomend?What was THE book for you?

    • Rod,

      Tough question. Maybe Body and Mature Behavior. The two books by Yohchanon Rywerant are good as well. Depends on what you are looking for of course. Moshe’s Awareness Through Movement is good too.

  8. Cole Dano says:

    Todd this is another excellent series.

    I finally get the idea of what Ideomotion is. Its so simple and though it takes a while for it to sink in with all the postural programing, it really makes sense.

    I will admit i learned a lot from McGill. There are times when we also use that stiffness, pressing a heavy weight overhead for example, but the idea, as so often happens, became more important than its context.

    I like to think of fluidity, to be able to go from soft to hard and the dance between the two.

    • Cole,

      Yes, there is definitely much to learn from McGill, I didn’t mean to be dismissive. And yes stiffness is a very useful thing just like tension, but in the right amount at the right time. What’s the saying? – - the dose makes the cure the dose makes the poison.

  9. Erland Olsen says:

    Hey Todd!

    Big fan of your writing.

    Now, I am very curious about this subject of ideomotion and simple contact. However, too me, it seems vague and maybe kinda speculative…
    I mean, I don’t say it does not work. I probably does…But, I fear it is just another technique in the bunch. We have all these new methods of novel movements, technically challenging slow focused movements (which you indeed need to voluntarily engage the nervous system to a high extent). When it comes to Barrett it seems to be quite the opposite, as the focus is, as I interpret it, on “involuntary”/unconsciously driven movements. So, I guess my question is, how do we fit these pieces together in terms of changing the nervous system in a positive way in the long term? Any good studies confirming the ideas mentioned above? Finally, I wonder if one is supposed to use ideomotion movements also as prevention, meaning that you do these movements in the social context that the dysfunctional static behaviors occurs. For example, during a socially stressing encounter, would Barrett encourage his patients to embark on “an ideomotion dance”…?
    Not my intention to be a pain in the a.., just trying to be a healthy skeptic, and I feel that I need some more evidence on the table….


    • Erland,

      Good questions. Yes, ideomotion is one of many techniques. I think Barrett has a good way to divide the up – choreographed and involuntary. Why not use both?

      Yes ideomotion would definitely be preventative.

      Luke Rickards did a study on ideomotion a while back. I will bring it up in the next part of the series …

  10. David Westerman says:

    Erland- I think Ideomotion can be used whenever. I don’t think it applies just to pain. Children exhibit this all the time and overall they’re a lot happier and more pain free than most adults. In my opinion Simple Contact isn’t a technique because people can do it on themselves once they’ve remove the “rigid” rules of society on how we’re supposed to move and express ourselves. You make some good points though.

    Todd- Great post. I just put part 2 up on Ideomotion.

  11. Hi, Everyone,

    Thanks for these comments, and of course your blog, Todd.

    If I may I would like to propose for Rod McAlister another book as being the (or at least an) ‘essential book’, a product of his more mature thinking, imho, “The Elusive Obvious”….for me it describes that “Ah-ha” feeling of ‘knowing’ something all along, but suddenly it becomes obvious–although you may experience it as a discovery, it has only eluded you until then…to me this is Feldenkrais, pealing away the layers of societal/parental ‘programming’ back to what you already always ‘knew’, but may have forgotten or never fully realized—buried under the layers of habit….in so many ways Feldenkrais (and presumably Rolfing) is a process of subtraction….

    All the zest,


  12. Thanks for the book suggestions.Techniques aside,what I know of Moshe’s work is that it is a path that many people,including myself,have taken in trying to make sense of world and our place in it.He just seems to have done a better job of it than I have! You are doing good work Todd.

  13. [...] read part three, click here. Tweet « Previous PostNext Post » 19 Responses to Ideomotion Part 2: Corrective [...]

  14. In my dancer years I used to go to Authentic Movement workshops, and this video of ideomotion reminded me of that experience. I only recently learned AM was developed by a dancer who was also trained in Jungian psychology, and is used commonly by dance therapists…the dancers I knew used it more as a means to enhance creativity and develop choreography.

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Hi Johanna, very interesting. I am not surprised that dancers use ideomotor movements, they are the most creative of all the movement traditions.

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