Safe? Effective? How Does It Work? – What Kind of Research Can We Do? Newspaper Science Nr. 2

By Roger Russell, MA, PT

The International Feldenkrais Federation Research Working Group (IFFRWG) is a network of Feldenkrais teachers that spans the globe. This network of academically trained scientists is a diverse group. Their research experience covers a wide range of scientific fields. On October 31 the network hosted its first online workshop. Susan Hillier, in Adelaide, Australia and Cliff Smyth in San Francisco discussed projects that have already been done. They were looking at quantitative and qualitative research, methods that are often seen as opposites.

Roger Russell, MA, PT. Training with Moshé Feldenkrais in San Francisco, Amherst and Israel (1975- 1982). A movement scientist, physical therapist and Feldenkrais trainer he is co-director of the Feldenkrais-Zentrum in Heidelberg, Germany. Since 1975 he has been intrigued by the network of ideas which stands behind the practical methods that Feldenkrais developed.  He is one of the initiators of the Feldenkrais Science Network and a leading participant in the FGNA/FEFNA symposia Movement and the Development of Sense of Self (2004) and Embodying Neuroscience (2012) as well as presenting Feldenkrais in conferences in Paris, Berlin, Oxford and Heidelberg.

Both of these research methodologies show that Feldenkrais can be approached from many directions. We can count numbers, measure how the accelerations in a movement pattern unfold, calculate statistics in groups of people who have done eight lessons in four weeks or 60 lessons in one year. Or, we can collect and interpret each individual’s descriptions of their experience during or after a single lesson. The research methods can be complex, and highly technical, necessitating a long apprenticeship for the researcher. The possibilities are many, and much has been done. In the meantime, a small group of the network members are re-organizing the inventory of research that has been done, starting with Moshe Feldenkrais’ research in the 1930’s and 1940’s. That data base will be updated regularly and will soon be available for other researchers. 

However, the mastery of scientific methods still does not answer the question: why are we doing the research at all? For the scientist, the obvious answer is curiosity. Whatever the field, curiosity drives creative science and research. On the other hand, policy makers want to know why is Feldenkrais good for their clients in the fields of health, human development and performance. In other words, is there evidence that the Feldenkrais Method is effective? For Feldenkrais professionals research can also direct our attention to hidden factors that can enhance our skills. Finally, we want a coherent and informed theory of how the Feldenkrais Method works. This comes down to three central questions that the Feldenkrais community needs to answer: Are Feldenkrais lessons safe? Are they effective? Why are Feldenkrais lessons effective?  

This sounds simple enough, but let’s look closer. First, are Feldenkrais lessons safe? This might seem like a no-brainer for Feldenkrais teachers. We all know the answer. However, for policy makers who want to hire Feldenkrais professionals it is a legitimate question. They want a definitive answer. Remarkably, we have not established this fact with clear scientific and statistical evidence. We need to establish that Awareness through Movement and Functional Integration lessons is safe for the individuals involved. 

Second, we need to show that the lessons are effective.  This kind of research is called outcomes research. To begin, we need to specify what we mean when we say that the Feldenkrais Method is effective. For whom, specifically, is it effective? What are they doing that is more effective? What does “better” mean for that activity and those people? And, how can we measure it? Most outcomes research answers these kinds of questions. For example: what does more effective mean for people with Multiple Sclerosis? Children with disabilities? Performing artists? Basketball players, golf professionals and Olympic cross-country skiers? What about people recovering from an injury or stroke? Aged people relearning balance? People participating in psychotherapy? The people involved are doing different things, and improvement might mean they are experiencing different results. Are the results applicable for other groups? If so, why? 

There are many ways to collect the necessary information. The key is asking the right question. We can ask clients to perform their activity in a movement lab where they are wearing suits with reflectors that allow a computer-video system to tell us about the velocities, accelerations, directions and rhythms of their movements. We can ask them to walk across a force plate, which gives us information about the interaction between the floor and the skeleton, powered by the muscles. We can use many standardized statistical tests or questionnaires. Or we might use another approach. In an interview we can ask about each individual’s experience; looking to grasp what the movements that we measure in the lab feel like as they are changing and what it means to them in their lives. These are some of the approaches that Cliff Smyth and Susan Hillier were discussing in their presentations. Adequate methods are available for getting the numbers and telling the stories. The members of the IFF research network of Feldenkrais teachers are trained to do the research. Getting the answers can be expensive and serious fundraising needs to be done.  

Finally, we need to answer the question of why these lessons are effective. What makes any Feldenkrais lesson work? In order to gain recognition for the Feldenkrais Method among policy makers, professional scientists, educators, therapists, coaches or psychologists we need to provide an understandable theory about how human beings respond to Feldenkrais lessons. A Feldenkrais theory is the conceptual container that gives meaning to the outcomes research. Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, has said: “A theory is a system of explanations that ties together a whole bunch of facts. It not only explains those facts, but predicts what you ought to find from other observations and experiments.” (New York Times 8.4.2016)

Philosophers of science will tell us that a Feldenkrais theory will need to adequately describe and explain the variety of experiences that people of all ages encounter in Feldenkrais lessons. It will demonstrate how diverse research results can be understood within a unified framework of ideas from many fields of science. A Feldenkrais theory will call our attention to elusive connections between moving, sensing, feeling and thinking that are obvious once we recognize new patterns. As it “ties together a whole bunch of facts” the logic of our theory will be coherent and free of contradictions. Finally, our theory will enable us to suggest new applications, predict new results and offer research methods to test our predictions.

This will take some time and a community of thoughtful people. In the meantime, we can establish that Feldenkrais is safe for anyone when guided by experienced Feldenkrais teachers. Eric Kiernan, the author of the article reviewing the October 31 online event in this newsletter has made a suggestion.

Every week thousands of people around the world participate in ATM and FI lessons. They can be asked to describe their experience, including their sense of how safe they feel during their Feldenkrais experience. There are methods for this kind of research. One intriguing example is a questionnaire that was answered by thousands of subscribers of Consumer Reports magazine in the United States in the 1990’s (Seligman, 1995). That report helped convince many American health insurance providers that psychotherapy was effective. 

Doing this kind of research would involve carefully crafting a questionnaire which can be distributed to all of the Feldenkrais associations in the IFF. We need to be careful. Writing good questionnaires is a scientific work of art. It must be done by properly trained people. It could be distributed to hundreds of Feldenkrais teachers, and they can give it to thousands of clients of all ages and all walks of life. It is challenging, but it is possible to do. It can establish that Feldenkrais lessons are reliably safe for almost everybody. Furthermore, the questionnaire could be followed up by more detailed interviews. The challenges of getting this done are substantial. It needs good organization, adequate funding, careful scientific coordination and supervision by professional social scientists. However, it is not beyond our reach. 

Further Reading

  • Carrier, M. (2006). Wissenschaftstheorie: zur Einführung. Hamburg, Junius Verlag. 
  • Cromwell, J. (2004). Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • de Regt, H.W. (2017). Understanding Scientific Understanding. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003). Theory and reality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Russell, R. (2011). „Forschung, Theorie? Brauchen wir das alles? Wie muss eine Theorie beschaffen sein, um als wissenschaftlich zu gelten?“  Feldenkrais Forum, 2011, Feldenkrais Verband Deutschland.
  • Schnädelbach, H. (2002). Erkenntnistheorie: zur Einführung, Hamburg, Junius Verlag. 
  • Seligman, M.E.P. (1995). “The effectiveness of psychotherapy: The Consumer Reports study”. American Psychologist, 50 (12), 965-974.
  • Jefford, M., Stockler, M.R., Tattersall, M.H.N. (2003). „Outcomes research: what is it and why does it matter?”  Internal Medicine Journal 2003 Mar;33(3): 110-118. DOI: 10.1046/j.1445-5994.2003.00302.x

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