The Centipede and Reverse Effort


In The Brain That Changes Itself  Dr. Norman Doidge talks about a stroke victim who recovers the ability to walk although 97% of the nerves from the cerebral cortex to the spine were destroyed. I myself have many clients with severe neuropathy who drive a car, walk around, and function at a high level.

While all that is true, if someone tells you you won't walk again after a severe injury or illness, you need to believe you can do it or you won't manage it, quite literally. The Swiss psychologist Charles Baudouin expressed something he called a law of reversed effort, stating that,

“Any exercise of willpower results in failure if unaccompanied by imagination and faith.” Furthermore, “Any straining of the will that is in opposition to the imagined process will cause damage.”

Baudouin might have gotten it from Aldous Huxley, who wrote something he also called the law of reversed effort:

The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent Unknown Quantity may take hold. We cannot make ourselves understand; the most we can do is to foster a state of mind, in which understanding may come to us.

Weirdly, both Huxley and Baudouin were alive during exactly the same time period, save one year: Baudouin from 1893-1963 and Huxley from 1894-1963, so who knows who got it from whom.

Nevertheless, learning movement is exactly that: Not understanding cognitively but fostering an open, curious state of mind. It's like solving the mysteries of the universe, to which everyone from Stephen Hawking to Richard Feynman to Einstein will attest cannot be achieved by linear thinking.

Instead, the question must be tossed in the air many times without expectation to see where it lands while we wait for the emergence of connections and threads that we don't yet know exist, all the while trusting that they do.

At the level of severe injury and pain as well as the everyday, relearning to move is not only neurological, it is fundamentally linked to our sense of self, which, like a scientific hypothesis, we must let go of many times to see how it reforms and reshapes. It must become changeable and elastic.

It's like getting comfortable in a new city: at first we feel awkward and clumsy and then we begin to "know" ourselves in the new context. We become open to new sensations. We test, experiment, and direct our attention to new things. Then a renewed self-assurance sets in. We get there by fostering Huxley's “state of mind, in which understanding may come to us.” This is a beginner's mind, one that at first undermines our old confidence and self-assurance because we can't rely on usual sensations for feedback.

Outside of moving to a new country, being injured or in pain removes self-assurance quicker than anything I know, and Feldenkrais helps regain it quicker than anything I know.

When our sense of self is removed, that is, when we have lost the usual feedback for how we feel and know ourselves from the inside, our very history is truncated. We have to find it again, and trust it again. I propose to lie on the floor, do a Feldenkrais lesson, experiment, and trust. A self-image will emerge and you will again be comfortable in yourself.

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The Centipede's Dilemma

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"

This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

Reference Humphrey's Law: thinking too hard impairs the task