The Difference That Makes A Difference

“Human sense organs can receive only news of difference, and the differences must be coded into events in time (i.e., into changes) in order to be perceptible. Ordinary static differences that remain constant for more than a few seconds become perceptible only by scanning. Similarly, very slow changes become perceptible only by a combination of scanning and bringing together observations from separated moments in the continuum of time.”

Mind And Nature – Gregory Bateson

“A difference that makes a difference” was Gregory Bateson’s definition of a “bit” or “elementary unit” of information. This phrase – often simply and inaccurately quoted as a definition of information itself – expresses an idea that is so clear and easy to grasp that it feels instantly useful.  This maybe in part because it describes so well the way our nervous system behaves.

Metal that isn’t being heated in some way is often cold to the touch – if you drop a coin onto the palm of your hand you will feel its coolness and maybe some of its flatness and roundness as well, but after a while the sensations will diminish until your awareness of the coin has almost gone (although the simple act of focusing your awareness on the coin will bring sensation back, which is what Bateson means by “scanning”, and why a self-scanning process is fundamental to Feldenkrais lessons). This isn’t simply because the coin warms up, but because your brain edits out the signal from the contact of the coin on your skin – nerve cells do not keep conveying the same information unless it is likely to be useful to us, they only fire off a signal to the brain when something new happens; when something changes.

Difference is what enables us to pick out new and relevant information from the sensory bombardment created by the highly stimulating world we live in. Difference is how we learn to distinguish the more useful “signals” from all the background “noise”.

In Feldenkrais teaching we are always looking for the difference that will make a positive difference to our own functioning and that of our students – Awareness Through Movement lessons are designed to maximise the amount of information that we get from the sensory motor nervous system by constantly paying attention to what changes – what ‘feels different’ – as we move, and when we get up from the floor at the end of the lesson we are rewarded with a very different sense of our self – our balance, our stance, the way we breath, the way we hold our head, the way we walk, our experience of our weight, to offer just a few examples.  We are standing in Earth’s gravity field with greater ease and less sense of conscious effort, and all these changes are achieved by the simple but powerful behaviour of paying attention to small differences.

In Functional Integration lessons the process is different – instead of verbal questions and movement “suggestions”, we now ask questions and offer movement suggestions with our hands. This can easily be mistaken for instruction – or even correction – by the student, because the tendency is for those who choose one-on-one training to have a perception of their problem as a medical issue that needs mending. The task of the teacher is to make it clear that any changes that happen on the Feldenkrais table happen because of a change in the behaviour of the person on the table. It is this change in behaviour that begins the process of reversing the problem, and once the person becomes fully aware of how and in what way they are doing something  differently there is a possibility that they can accelerate the process of reversing their problem in a more intentional and conscious way. Once this shift into more subtle self-awareness has occurred the person is now ‘practising’ Feldenkrais rather than simply experiencing or enjoying it. 

If you are still reading this then I hope you have found your way here because something you have heard about Feldenkrais intrigued you, inspired your curiosity, or maybe even thoroughly delighted you. I hope you will stay, make comments, ask questions, and maybe contribute to what could become a bigger conversation about what The Feldenkrais Method is all about.

Traditionally we Feldenkrais teachers find it difficult to encapsulate what we do in a couple of sentences, which can be frustrating at first, but ultimately I have come to celebrate the complexity that makes our method hard to pin down. I believe that complexity is fundamental to Feldenkrais because our process is centred on the complexity of the human brain-and-nervous-system, so I will finish with a quote from Oliver Sacks:

There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

― Oliver Sacks, Gratitude


By writing this ongoing blog, my goal is to show just how different Feldenkrais is from other routes to wellbeing, and how much difference it can make for us all. This was the original introduction to my first WordPress blog; it is still my fundamental goal – learning to learn, and having fun learning are inseparable, but the connection is only slowly reaching mainstream understanding, and then mainly with regard to the education of children. Play* is a fundamental for learning, and it has a lovely array of meanings that express much of what continuous-learning-throughout-life is all about…

*An article is on the way – I am not ready to say when, but here is a link to the Wikipedia page on the subject.

By writing this ongoing blog, my goal is to show just how different Feldenkrais is from other routes to wellbeing, and how much difference it can make for us all.

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