A Bad Smell

I went to a doctor’s appointment the other day. 

And as I stepped into the waiting room, the smell—a mix of antiseptic cleanser, old carpet, and plastic furniture—hung so thick in the air, I actually flinched. 

And yet, after a few of minutes sitting and filling out forms , I couldn’t smell it at all. 

How could a scent which hit me with a palpable shock 5 minutes before, recede so completely into the background and disappear?

One of the main abilities of the human nervous system is to acclimate to things. To get used to a background.

The Weber/Fechner law I mentioned in an earlier talk explains this phenomenon.

The law states that we sense change in a foreground stimulus when it passes a certain threshold relative to the background.  It’s is also called “the law of just noticeable difference.” And it works like this: 

If you and I were in Central Park on a sunny day, and I lit a match, the flame would be almost invisible. But if we were in an underground cave, in pitch black, the same match, with it’s same number of lumens, would flash a hundred times as bright. The level of background stimulus (the sunny day, the darkness of the cave) determines how big a change we need in the foreground stimulus to sense that something happened. This has profound implications for how improvement works, especially in the realm of movement and posture. 

While the law applies to all the senses, in his book Awareness Through Movement, Feldenkrais describes the phenomena in terms of weight: saying “if I carry an iron bar, and a fly lands on the end of it, I am not going to sense the additional weight of the fly. But if I hold a feather...
Turns out the actual ratio is about 1/40. So if you held a 40 lb. iron bar you’ll you’ll need a 1 lb. fly to feel the difference. There is a kind of efficiency in this. Because if our nervous system registered every change in stimulus with absolute accuracy, we would go crazy. There would be no stable version of reality within which to function. 

In terms of movement, your posture is your version of the stable background for all your actions in the foreground. 

Unfortunately, if you have poor posture, the accuracy of your sensation is corroded: finer distinctions elude you. 

If you remember my talk on the weight and the stick, you know that poor posture requires extra muscular effort. This keeps the background neurological noise level quite high, and diverts muscular resources away from dexterity and refinement.  

This explains how some people acquire skills with greater ease and less effort, while others of us toil away, get injured and plateau. Skillful people sense their bodies more clearly, giving them more control over the levers of improvement and safety. 

Most of us were only ever trained to fill the foreground with effort, willpower and the expectation of an outcome. And a model that ignores the relationship between background and foreground, between efficiency and effort, is likely to lead to some painful dead ends. The game of exercise is not really set up to teach you how to hack into this background/foreground problem. If you’re unlucky,  it’s possible to tear yourself down in exercise doing the very activities you meant to build yourself up. 

In Awareness Through Movement you are playing a very different game.  In this game you become that more skillful person, by taking movement out of the category of exercise, and putting it under the light of investigation. Here, distinguishing the signal from the noise is not only the goal, it’s the path. And you win points for reducing the noise, by testing and manipulating the foreground/background elements as you move. In Awareness Through Movement, repetitions become refinements. And you finally edit the muscular “sentences” which have always made life difficult.

You’ve probably heard the expression “no pain, no gain”. 

In Awareness Through Movement your ability to modulate your intention, so you move without attaching pain to it, is the priority.  

Here, avoiding pain isn’t a mark of sloth or passivity: it’s catalyst.

The whole idea is to have a rigorous practice where you improve without harming yourself. 

And not by luck.

By design. 

To read more about the Weber-Fechner Law of just noticeable difference, click here.