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November 22, 2009

Recently after a Feldenkrais group class a student asked me “What’s the ‘take-away’ from this?” It’s a fair question but a difficult one to answer succinctly so J., if you’re reading this, here’s an extended response, inspired by a recent espresso coffee machine purchase.

In most adult learning scenarios we ‘take-away’ a set of ‘rules’ to follow for practice in the skill we’re attempting to learn. By ‘rules’ I mean a set of facts which we are expected to memorise (eg this part is the coffee filter, this part is the water container) and / or a set of prescribed sequences we are expected to practice (eg first grind the coffee, next measure the ground coffee into the filter etc). In most cases this learning procedure follows a Demonstration – Imitation model (eg instruction booklet diagrams in which one identifies the various machine parts and then attempts to imitate in order to make coffee). At this early stage, the ‘take-away’ learning relies largely on declarative memory (even for the sequence part):

Declarative memory is the aspect of human memory that stores facts. It is so called because it refers to memories that can be consciously discussed, or declared. It applies to standard textbook learning and knowledge, as well as memories that can be ‘travelled back to’ in one’s ‘mind’s eye‘. It is contrasted with procedural memory, which applies to skills. Declarative memory is subject to forgetting, but frequently-accessed memories can last indefinitely. Declarative memories are best established by using active recall combined with mnemonic techniques and spaced repetition.[1]

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In other words, it’s a highly cerebral, explicit, conscious and abstract process.

A Feldenkrais class, on the other hand, doesn’t follow a Demonstration – Imitation model, it follows a Guided trial & error – Discovery model, and it has a ‘take-away’ learning that relies largely on procedural memory:

Procedural memory is the long-term memory of skills and procedures, or “how to” knowledge (procedural knowledge).It is considered a form of implicit memory.[1] As compared with declarative memory, it is governed by different mechanisms and different components of the brain. Procedural memory is often not easily verbalized, but can be used without consciously thinking about it; procedural memory can reflect simple stimulus-response pairing or more extensive patterns learned over time. In contrast, declarative memory can generally be put into words. Examples of procedural learning are learning to ride a bike, learning to touch type, learning to play a musical instrument or learning to swim. Procedural memory can be very durable.

So here is the dilemma: you come to a Feldenkrais class, lie on the floor and do a few small movements for about 45 minutes, and then when you stand up and walk around you feel different. Familiarity with learning through rule sets (declarative memory) naturally inclines you to ask for the ‘rules’, and your Feldenkrais practitioner has a real hard time articulating anything that remotely resembles a rule set. Partly this is because the bio-mechanics of human movement is so heinously complex (scientists have developed machines that can process information at speeds impossible for the human conscious mind, but have not yet succeeded in making a machine that can walk like a human), and partly it’s because the learning that occurs happens at levels of the brain not easily accessed by consciousness. This wonderful example of Problem Solving and Body Movements probably sums up what I’m talking about best.

I think it’s entirely reasonable to seek facts (rule sets) – after all, you also want to know that if you follow the instruction diagrams exactly, you’ll get a cup of coffee and not have the machine explode and paint your kitchen ceiling brown. Unfortunately, not everything can be neatly or succinctly explicated: even after 19 pages of scrupulous instructive detail, my espresso coffee machine booklet states:

The taste of your coffee will… depend on personal preference and on many other factors such as the type of bean, ….. the grind and the tamping pressure… We recommend experimenting by varying these factors to achieve the coffee taste of your preference.

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