Can Ideomotion Treat Chronic Pain? Part One


Ideomotion facilitator

Ideomotion is a movement that occurs as a result of mental activity, but independently of conscious volition. This makes it a very mischievous movement. Although most people have never heard of ideomotion, it is the likely explanation for a wide variety of interesting phenomena, such as ouija boards, cold reading, poker tells, various scams and magic tricks, and certain claims of supernatural power. Ideomotion might also be the best explanation for why certain manual therapies work. I recently went to a workshop run by Barrett Dorko, who proposes that one purpose of ideomotion is to reduce mechanical deformation of nervous tissue. So the purpose of this post and the next is to discuss ideomotion and whether it can be an effective way to treat chronic pain.

Ideomotion defined

Unconscious movements are commonly divided into three categories. Excitomotor activity controls breathing and swallowing. Sensorimotor activity involves the startle reflex, blinking, and other quick protective movements like removing your hand from a hot stove. Ideomotor activity is caused by a mental event such as a thought or emotion, but it is non volitional. Examples of ideomotion are the contractions of facial muscles that occur with emotion, the body movements and hand gestures that accompany verbal communication, and postural adjustments made in response to discomfort. Ideomotion is also involved in performing complex motor tasks without conscious attention such as driving a car while enjoying a delicious beverage or texting.

Ideomotion and ouija boards

Because ideomotion occurs without any conscious intention, it can sometimes make someone think that their own ideomotor movements are caused by an external force. The classic example is dowsing for water.

Dowsers claim they can locate water underground by walking with two parallel rods in their hands, and waiting for the rods to spontaneously cross when water is near. Experiments with novice dowsers show that if they are told water is in a certain location, the rods will cross when they walk over it, whether there is water there or not. Importantly, the novice dowsers usually deny they were moving the rods, and will sincerely claim the rods were moved by a mysterious external force. Why don’t they realize they were the source of the movement? Because ideomotion occurs without conscious volition, so it can be perceived as coming from an external source. Another important takeaway here is that ideomotion can be unconsciously designed to fulfill preconceived notions and other mental suggestions. Similar effects explain numerous other phenomena, such as ouija boards, facilitated communication, pendulum swinging, and various claims of supernatural phenomena.

Ideomotor effects are also at play in the world of manual therapy. For example, let’s assume that a therapist uses manual muscle testing to assess the effects of a therapeutic intervention on strength. If the tester has preconceived notions about whether the therapy was effective (which we should expect), this could, through ideomotor activity, affect the force that the therapist applies to the limb and destroy the validity of the test, even if the therapist is attempting to be honest and objective in applying the test. It is not surprising that certain studies have found manual muscle tests to be an unreliable way to assess muscular strength.

Ideomotion and body language

How do you know when someone is lying to you about something? By watching their ideomotor activity. Ideomotion causes involuntary body movements in the face and elsewhere that reveal intentions, thoughts and feelings. Humans are so good at reading the mind behind these movements that we refer to them as body language. In fact, it is said that most of communication occurs through body movements and not words.

It is very difficult to suppress the expression of body language, or to use body language that does not reflect your true mental state. This is why acting is a skill. It is also why many actors employ the “method”, by which you try to actually feel the emotions of your character and let the related body language flow naturally, as opposed to consciously imitating the body motions you think are appropriate. Next time you watch a movie, notice how much you can tell about a certain character before they even speak, just by watching them move. And next time you play poker, take along the Big Book of Tells with you to figure out whether your opponent is bluffing.

Animals can read body language amazingly well. In the 1920s there was a horse named Clever Hans who appeared to perform amazing feats of arithmetic by stamping his feet the same number of times as the numerical answer to a math question from the audience. It was finally discovered that Hans was not so clever when he couldn’t see his trainer, who was unintentionally signalling the horse when to stop stamping by subtle ideomotoric body language. Perhaps even more amazing than the horse’s ability to pick up on the cues from the trainer is the fact that the trainer had no idea he was sending them. He was understandably a little upset when he learned what was actually going on.

Another amazing example of the sensitivity and accuracy with which people can learn to read body language is shown in a magic trick made popular by the Amazing Kreksin. A magician (or claimed psychic) takes the hand of a person who has hidden an object somewhere in a large area such as a house. The magician walks through the house holding the person’s hand and ultimately locates the hidden object based solely on feedback he receives from the involuntary and subtle movements of his escort.

In the manual therapy context, ideomotoric body language may be what bodyworkers are trying to feel when they palpate or “listen” for subtle motions in the tissues. Such motions are given various names: inherent motion, motility, release, energy, chi, the breath of life, etc. The interesting thing here is that so many different traditions have independently placed significant importance on what may be ideomotion. Why would ideomotion help with pain? In the next post I’ll discuss Barrett Dorko’s theory that one of the purposes of ideomotor movement may be to reduce mechanical deformation of nervous tissues, and his methods to elicit it.

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29 Responses to “Can Ideomotion Treat Chronic Pain? Part One”

  1. Hi Todd,
    What a great thought provoking article!
    I’ve only just discovered your blog and can’t get enough of it. I’m in the process of training in a method called the Tellington Touch which is based on Feldenkrais work. Your articles have really enhanced my understanding.
    Thank you

  2. TTouch is mainly practised on animals although it is often applied to humans. It incorporates the Feldenkrais principles of using gentle nonhabitual movements to enhance physical and mental potential. Slow ground and body work exercises are used to try and expand the animals awareness of its body with a view to giving it more choices about how it moves so it can break postural habits and tension patterns. This has the knock on effect of releasing it from destructive/negative behavioural habits aswell. The bodywork incorporates the ‘Ttouches’ which involve moving the skin in specific circles. As with The Feldenkrais Method the TTouch’vibe’is exploratory/nonjudgemental and nothing is ever forced. It’s a lovely respectful way to interact with our animals.

  3. Great info as always Todd. I’m going to use this as an explanation to my patients.


  4. Todd,

    Glad to see this here and I look forward to part two.

    2″ts” in Barrett

    Have you seen the video yet?

  5. Certainly. I hope I didn’t step on that prematurely.

  6. Nicely done once again Todd. I have just begun reading some of the somasimple forums and some of Barrett’s writing, which I enjoy very much btw, Barrett. I am interested to read the next installment and would love to hear your thoughts on how this relates if at all, to the Feldenkrais Method some time.

    • Thanks Seth,

      Great question. I asked Barrett the same question because Barrett is a big fan of Feldenkrais. Barrett looks at ideomotion as an unchoreographed motion while Feldenkrais movements (ATMS at least) are choreographed. So big difference there. They both get good results but probably by different pathways. I need to think on this a little more though, its an interesting question.

      • The answer is yes! Hundreds of well trained myofascial therapists do it every day. We call it unwinding.
        Barrett is aware of this but has difficulty with some aspects of this total body/mind experience.

      • Bob,

        Thanks for the comment. Are you the Bob from the infamous MFR thread on somasimple?

        I agree that many manual therapy events such as unwinding are likely ideomotion by another name. But I think It’s ironic that you would consider “unwinding” to be more of a “total body/mind experience” than “ideomotion.” Ideomotion literally means that ideas in the mind cause movement in the body. Why would you prefer the term unwinding? This term is far less precise, and doesn’t even mention the brain. Not surprising that many myofascial therapists are unaware of the role of the CNS in pain and movement. This is a semantic argument of course, but semantics count, especially considering how confused people get over the term mind/body. See this post for more.

      • Todd, yes ATM is definitely choreographed. And there are some real benefits to this, for instance, the contraints of the lessons elicit new movement that is outside of the usual limits of one’s unconscious habits. (Is ideomotion as constrained by our habits as is other movement? Or does it somehow when fully expressed free us from them?) However, it is possible that when the student is fully engaged in the exploratory learning process, that is, really exploring different options and engaging in the sensory-motor experience there may be an element of ideomotor activity as well. But I am also interested in how it may or may not relate to our hands-on sessions, Functional Integration. While our work is certainly more directive than how Barrett describes what he is doing, there is as you know a good deal of listening involved. I wonder what if any contribution ideomotion makes to this process. I am not sure if there is anything here or not. I am curious about your thoughts when you are ready, seeing as though you just took a workshop with Barrett.

  7. Todd
    I guess I use unwinding since it seems easier to explain to the patient. I am very well aware of the role of the CNS and I do explain things to the more interested or inquisitive patients. I like to keep it to a minimum so no fear of right or wrong creeps in to the patients brain. Give yourself permission to let your body do what it knows it wants to do to feel better. Then light contact and follow the revealed motion. Instinctive correction once we get our socialized behavior out of the way.

    • Robert,

      That makes sense. Explaining something to a client is a real challenge. I agree that it is the exceptional client who wants to consider the CNS as a target of therapy.

  8. The term “unwinding” is now irrevocably associated with the worst sort of wildness, as is the word “release.”

    Too bad.

    Evoking the mind/body once again. As if this were something new and scary somehow; as if those who “believe” in it were somehow wiser than the rest of us. My patients don’t have any trouble understanding that they have brains. I won’t lie to them about fascial restrictions or past lives either.

    I am truly tired of this old trope.

    • Barrett,

      In who’s world are you associating? I have explained unwinding to several of my referring physicians and have treated 2 of them with the process. No one was scared and no one was perceived as superior due to a belief system. The process is just the opposite. We become more human when we understand how our magnificent body has the inherent capability to relieve its own discomfort thru movement which doesn’t involve untwisting a pill bottle. By the way I don’t lie to my patients either and resent the implication.

  9. Seth,

    Good ideas, food for thought. I think the listening in FI definitely may be a way to elicit ideomotion. I also find it interesting that the whole idea of ideomotion (thoughts causing movements) ties in with Moshe’s idea that movements, sensations, thoughts and emotions are all connected.

    • Todd,
      Movements,sensations, thoughts and emotions are all connected. “Never a thought without a thing.” Think about a nice juicy steak sizzling on a grill. Your body will have physiological reactions and may even salivate unless your vegan than there may be ill feelings and disgust. We are a very complex organism which can do incredible things if we allow our selves to emerge beyond preconceived notions and social restrictions. Of course the proper setting and context for this behavior is necessary.

  10. Connecting emotion to decision making, movement and the thoughts that precede them has been the hallmark of Dimasio’s work for years now. Nothing new.

    I rather doubt that the physicians referred to were told about the violent, seemingly uncontrolled, dramatic and very loud “reactions to MFR” written of so frequently and proudly by Robert’s colleagues at the ADVANCED courses of MFR.

    If they also accept the common explanations about the “fascia moving us” and “emotions stored in the fascia” that typically accompany the theory behind MFR they are either being polite or ignorant or both. Being human, this is not surprising.

    I know that some still-living charismatic figure didn’t come up with the term “ideomotion” but it’s the one that actually describe what’s actually happening and I see no reason not to use it or replace it with something else that carries so much negative baggage.

    If the therapist uses an explanation they know to be untrue they are lieing. If they don’t know it’s untrue, they aren’t – they’re just mistaken. However, they have a responsibility to defend what they say.

  11. A therapist once put some food to my chin and pushed my arm down from horizontal position. If she succeeded to push my arm down the third try it would show that I was intolerant to that food. I suppose this is called muscle testing, maybe even applied kinesiology?

    I’ve been occasionally thinking of how it might work and thought that perhaps it’s happening within the patient. The patient probably has a good idea of what foods she’s intolerant to. If she knows she’s tested for something she is intolerant to, perhaps unconsciously she could get “weaker”?

    Now you’re saying that it could be unconsciously in the head of the therapist instead. Interesting. Could ideomotion play a role in the patient as well or do you think it’s always really in the therapist’s head?

    • Tim,

      I think nutritional AK is likely bogus. Stephen Barret at quackcwatch has a good article on it I think. If the hand goes down it could be the therapist or the client. But it s very unlikely that it is because of an actual reaction to the food other than a placebo.

  12. Talking about ideomotion and the myriad of things going on with applied kinesiology, or even manual muscle testing becomes very confusing. Numerous factors are at play and we can only guess at a few of them.

    I prefer to stick with the studies of ideomotion as an active movement that expresses us or makes us comfortable and is nonconsciously motivated.

  13. geniou work.keep it up


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