Parasitic Emotions - Can Movement Training Improve Impulse Control?

In part one of this series I introduced the idea of a “parasitic” movement, a term coined by Moshe Feldenkrais. It means an undesirable movement which follows uncontrollably after an intended movement. For example, imagine trying to hit a certain key on the piano with your middle finger, but you end up activating your ring finger as well, which hits another key at the same time, which messes up your tune. The parasitic connection between the fingers is actually in the brain not the hand. The neural activation in the part of the brain that controls the middle finger spreads inappropriately to the part that controls the ring finger, because it is not properly inhibited. One big part of getting better at the piano or any other form of movement is simply gaining the skill of controlling the unwanted spread of neural activation.

The question for this post is whether the development of skill in inhibiting movement translates to the inhibition of unwanted emotions and thoughts. Moshe Feldenkrais thought so. He developed his method not just as a way to master movement, but as a way to gain control over more abstract mental qualities. One of his famous quotes is: “I am not after flexible bodies. I am after flexible minds.” So his method was actually intended as a means to personal development, not just movement skill.

Personally, I didn't become interested in the Feldenkrais method for a more flexible mind. I just wanted better movement. And I was always a little skeptical of the idea that we can improve emotional skills through working on movement skill. But as it turns out, there are some plausible mechanisms for this theory and some very interesting supporting research. Let’s take a look.

Mental parasites

First, let’s describe how a thought or emotion might be considered analogous to a parasitic movement. Just as with movement, we could define a parasitic thought or emotion as an undesirable mental output that arises through a failure to inhibit a particular pattern of neural excitement.

For example, imagine a guy who has anger management issues. He gets angry after a wide variety of stimuli –getting frustrated at work, reading some stupid Facebook post, or being cut off by some a-hole in traffic. (Hey, who could blame him right?) Although he knows that his anger is unproductive and unpleasant, he is helpless to control it as soon as it is triggered.

We could think of many other examples of parasitic thoughts or emotions, especially those involving addictions, compulsions, obsessions, anxieties or other neuroses. When we say that something “triggers” us, or “pushes our buttons”, we are basically admitting that we have no ability to inhibit our actions in response to the triggers. Our responses are essentially automatic - we are like robots or machines without free will. (Actually a better phrase would be “free won’t”, because inhibition is the essence of self control.)

And with this in mind we might wonder, as Feldenkrais did, whether inhibition is a general skill that can be developed in regard to movement and then applied in other areas such as emotion or thought. Some research strongly suggests that it is.

Research on motor inhibition and impulse control

I recently read a very interesting paper which tried to determine whether motor inhibition training would help suppress the desire to engage in superficially attractive but risky gambling choices. The full text of the paper along with comments is available here at the blog of Chris Chambers, one of the authors of the study. It’s a very interesting read, and if you’re interested in the details, please click over. Otherwise, here’s a quick summary of the meaning of the study.

The study was prompted by research which showed some interesting correlations between poor skill in motor inhibition and increased tendency towards a variety of impulse control disorders. For example, people with ADHD, substance abuse, and gambling addiction perform worse than average on tests of motor inhibition such as a “stop task.”

Further, research shows that the brain areas related to inhibiting motor output also regulate risk-taking behavior. In fact, disruption of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex leads to increased risk-taking in gambling.

On the basis of these findings, researchers have proposed that the inhibitory mechanisms that control movement are also used to suppress thoughts and decisions that are potentially harmful.

Chambers’ study sought to test this theory by recruiting forty four people to play a gambling video game. The game involved betting on the performance of six rising bars on a computer screen, each of which offered different payoffs at different odds.

The details of the game are a little complex but here is the interesting part. One group was instructed to hit a certain computer key when one of the rising bars turned black. The other group had to prevent themselves from hitting any keys when a bar turned black.

In other words, the only difference between the groups was that when a bar turned black, one group had to inhibit muscle activity, while the others had to activate it. The participants in the inhibition group were 10 to 15% less likely to make risky bets.

Significantly, the same results occurred when the inhibition task was performed several hours before the gambling.

On the basis of these findings, the researchers proposed that: “increased motor cautiousness, which is a prominent feature of the stop task, reduced risk taking behavior when making monetary decisions.”

And why was that? Chambers writes in his blog:

Why should the act of inhibiting simple movements lead to more cautious gambling behaviour? We don't yet know, but our working hypothesis is that it boosts or primes an inhibition system in the brain that regulates a range of functions - including complex decision-making. By strengthening motor inhibition through the mental equivalent of a ‘gym workout’ we may be able to open new avenues for treating problem gambling and other addictions. 

Boom. (As the kids say.)

Here are some of my thoughts on the study.

First, this is a very encouraging possibility. Most of the skills we develop are very specific to one particular domain, but useless elsewhere. So it is very good to know which skills are likely to have wide transfer and broad applicability to many domains. In this case, it seems that training motor skills will provide benefits that are not limited to the physical realm. This shouldn't be too surprising, since most of our brain power originally evolved as a way to create movement. Higher order functions such as thought and emotion came later, and had to rely on the previously developed movement software and hardware as a base. So if you improve the base you improve everything else that is built on top if it.

Second, Feldenkrais ATM lessons appear to be a perfect example of the “mental workout” that Chambers mentions as a possible new way to treat failures of impulse control. The study notes that “stop tasks” train motor inhibition because they require “motor cautiousness.” Motor cautiousness can also be induced by asking the mover to favor accuracy over speed.

These are some of the exact strategies used in Feldenkrais ATM lessons. Students are asked to go slowly, and make sure that the trajectory of their movement is precise. They are also frequently instructed to ensure that their movements are “reversible”, i.e. that they can be stopped at any particular point in time and then sent in the opposite direction with a minimum of muscular effort.

Third, I am reminded of many articles and books I have been reading recently suggesting that executive control, or inhibition, or willpower is in the nature of an all purpose “mental muscle”, which can be trained up and used for a variety of purposes. (For example, ever heard of the marshmallow test?) There seems to be quite a bit of recent research showing that meditation can develop some sort of all purpose beneficial mental skill. It helps with this, it helps with that, it seems to be good for everything. And I suspect that the quality meditation develops is essentially executive control, and that it is trained up by practicing the skill of inhibiting yourself from following unwanted thoughts or emotions. Gentle movement practices such as yoga, tai chi and Feldenkrais probably contribute to personal well being through similar mechanisms, while incorporating movement inhibition into the mix.

An Anecdote

As I said above, I did not become interested in the Feldenkrais method as a way to develop abstract mental qualities or personal maturity, and I was always a little skeptical of this idea, so I find the above research very interesting.

And, I know that personal anecdotes are not proper evidence in favor of any particular scientific proposition. But here’s mine. When I am in Feldenkrais training and doing a couple hours of awareness through movement lessons each day, I have often had the distinct impression that I have a little bit more freedom of choice or "free won't" in my emotional responses to certain events during the day. And sometimes I can even stop myself from giving someone the finger when they cut me off in traffic. Or, when I do raise my finger, well that's a choice not a reflex.

Anyone else ever noticed something similar with yoga, tai chi, Z-Health, meditation or some other form of inhibition training? Let me know in the comments.