By Todd Hargrove

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I'm an author, bodyworker and movement therapist. I write about coordination, pain, complexity, play, the nervous system, body/mind issues and more.

Can Ideomotion Treat Chronic Pain? Part One

Ideomotion is a movement that occurs as a result of mental activity, but independently of conscious volition. This makes it a very mischievous movement. Although most people have never heard of ideomotion, it is the likely explanation for a wide variety of interesting phenomena, such as ouija boards, cold reading, poker tells, various scams and magic tricks, and certain claims of supernatural power. Ideomotion might also be the best explanation for why certain manual therapies work. I recently went to a workshop run by Barrett Dorko, who proposes that one purpose of ideomotion is to reduce mechanical deformation of nervous tissue. So the purpose of this post and the next is to discuss ideomotion and whether it can be an effective way to treat chronic pain.

Ideomotion defined

Unconscious movements are commonly divided into three categories. Excitomotor activity controls breathing and swallowing. Sensorimotor activity involves the startle reflex, blinking, and other quick protective movements like removing your hand from a hot stove. Ideomotor activity is caused by a mental event such as a thought or emotion, but it is non volitional. Examples of ideomotion are the contractions of facial muscles that occur with emotion, the body movements and hand gestures that accompany verbal communication, and postural adjustments made in response to discomfort. Ideomotion is also involved in performing complex motor tasks without conscious attention such as driving a car while enjoying a delicious beverage or texting.

Ideomotion and ouija boards

Because ideomotion occurs without any conscious intention, it can sometimes make someone think that their own ideomotor movements are caused by an external force. The classic example is dowsing for water.

Dowsers claim they can locate water underground by walking with two parallel rods in their hands, and waiting for the rods to spontaneously cross when water is near. Experiments with novice dowsers show that if they are told water is in a certain location, the rods will cross when they walk over it, whether there is water there or not. Importantly, the novice dowsers usually deny they were moving the rods, and will sincerely claim the rods were moved by a mysterious external force. Why don’t they realize they were the source of the movement? Because ideomotion occurs without conscious volition, so it can be perceived as coming from an external source. Another important takeaway here is that ideomotion can be unconsciously designed to fulfill preconceived notions and other mental suggestions. Similar effects explain numerous other phenomena, such as ouija boards, facilitated communication, pendulum swinging, and various claims of supernatural phenomena.

Ideomotor effects are also at play in the world of manual therapy. For example, let’s assume that a therapist uses manual muscle testing to assess the effects of a therapeutic intervention on strength. If the tester has preconceived notions about whether the therapy was effective (which we should expect), this could, through ideomotor activity, affect the force that the therapist applies to the limb and destroy the validity of the test, even if the therapist is attempting to be honest and objective in applying the test. It is not surprising that certain studies have found manual muscle tests to be an unreliable way to assess muscular strength.

Ideomotion and body language

How do you know when someone is lying to you about something? By watching their ideomotor activity. Ideomotion causes involuntary body movements in the face and elsewhere that reveal intentions, thoughts and feelings. Humans are so good at reading the mind behind these movements that we refer to them as body language. In fact, it is said that most of communication occurs through body movements and not words.

It is very difficult to suppress the expression of body language, or to use body language that does not reflect your true mental state. This is why acting is a skill. It is also why many actors employ the “method”, by which you try to actually feel the emotions of your character and let the related body language flow naturally, as opposed to consciously imitating the body motions you think are appropriate. Next time you watch a movie, notice how much you can tell about a certain character before they even speak, just by watching them move. And next time you play poker, take along the Big Book of Tells with you to figure out whether your opponent is bluffing.

Animals can read body language amazingly well. In the 1920s there was a horse named Clever Hans who appeared to perform amazing feats of arithmetic by stamping his feet the same number of times as the numerical answer to a math question from the audience. It was finally discovered that Hans was not so clever when he couldn’t see his trainer, who was unintentionally signalling the horse when to stop stamping by subtle ideomotoric body language. Perhaps even more amazing than the horse’s ability to pick up on the cues from the trainer is the fact that the trainer had no idea he was sending them. He was understandably a little upset when he learned what was actually going on.

Another amazing example of the sensitivity and accuracy with which people can learn to read body language is shown in a magic trick made popular by the Amazing Kreksin. A magician (or claimed psychic) takes the hand of a person who has hidden an object somewhere in a large area such as a house. The magician walks through the house holding the person’s hand and ultimately locates the hidden object based solely on feedback he receives from the involuntary and subtle movements of his escort.

In the manual therapy context, ideomotoric body language may be what bodyworkers are trying to feel when they palpate or “listen” for subtle motions in the tissues. Such motions are given various names: inherent motion, motility, release, energy, chi, the breath of life, etc. The interesting thing here is that so many different traditions have independently placed significant importance on what may be ideomotion. Why would ideomotion help with pain? In the next post I’ll discuss Barrett Dorko’s theory that one of the purposes of ideomotor movement may be to reduce mechanical deformation of nervous tissues, and his methods to elicit it. To read part two, click here.

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