Thursday, February 5, 2015

Chapter 45 - Seminars: Part 6 - Neuro-Semantic Relaxation

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

At the first seminar in Chicago, during the first personal interviews he gave there, Korzybski made an interesting and, for him, pivotal discovery. He conducted the interviews in his hotel suite, which had a narrow table where he sat across from a student during a session. He heard more than one tale of woe. “The carpet after a few hours”, he said, “was wet from tears.”(10) Seeing the ‘unhappiness’ frozen on a student’s face, he often felt impelled to reach across and touch it in a gesture of comfort. He hated to see such a face “tense as hell”.(11) He wanted to relax it. And the student’s face seemed to invariably soften and relax. If the student began to ‘make a face’ again during the session, Korzybski would quietly reach across once more to relax him. It seemed to make a difference in the student’s attitude, at least during the session. Afterwards, accompanying the student to the door, he would often pat him on the back, shoulder, or arm, making a more or less instinctive gesture of connection, reassurance, and calm as they said goodbye. More than one student returning for a second interview would ask Korzybski to repeat what he had done to relax them. Korzybski began to wonder about what had happened, to consider what he had done with so little plan.

He realized he had done this kind of thing most of his life, first with horses. He wouldn’t get on a horse, even one he knew, without approaching it first and making a friendly physical contact. And having trained wild horses, he had learned how to relax a skittish one this way too. What had worked with horses had worked with people as well. At St. Elizabeths he remembered that upon finishing an interview with patients there (not the kind of consultative interview with students he had just started to do) he would sometimes give them a farewell pat which seemed to leave them in a somewhat brighter mood.

Now his students were coming back to him and asking him to purposefully repeat “his friendly grasp of their arm, or gentle shake-up of [their] distorted, worried face.”(12)  He now began to consciously experiment with what he had first done in an off-handed kind of way. His students began to do it to themselves as well and a new technique evolved, which he came to call “semantic relaxation” or “neuro-semantic relaxation”.

The label would make no sense to those who continued to restrict the term ‘semantic’ to the realm of verbal ‘meaning’. But since for Korzybski, evaluation or ‘semantic reaction’ related to non-verbal organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment responses, he came to feel that dealing with the musculature in this way had critical importance in reducing ‘emotional’ tension and thus in becoming more extensional. He came to believe the technique had its main effect not on the tension of the voluntary musculature, which we can feel, but on the involuntary, insensate musculature of the blood vessels, which affected the blood pressure. (He had some confirmation of this from the effects which the procedure seemed to have on normalizing the blood pressures of students who practiced it regularly.) A few years later, he would write in his “Introduction To The Second Edition” of Science and Sanity:
We are never aware of this particular steady kind of ‘emotional’ tension, which involves hidden fears, anxieties, uncertainties, frustrations, etc., and through nervous mechanisms of projection colour harmfully our attitudes toward the world and life in general. Such conditions result in defensiveness, which is no defense, but a wasteful, useless drain on the limited nervous capacities. (13) 
Korzybski later became fond of Dave Breger's 1944 cartoon which showed a tough-looking drill sergeant, hands on hips, yelling at a group of frightened-looking recruits: "You on the end! Wipe that opinion off your face!"
Korzybski circa 1948-1949 holding framed illustration below
Cut, pasted, framed
and kept readily at hand in Alfred Korzybski's office

Whatever its mechanism, semantic relaxation seemed to help students wipe their opinions off their faces. It became a regular part of the seminar training (usually put at the tail-end of Korzybski’s lectures). First, he would explain the origin and theory of the technique and demonstrate it with a male volunteer. Then the class would break up into small groups (men and women separated) where they would practice on themselves with the help of one of Alfred’s assistants.

Although Korzybski saw it as primarily a self-help method, it could be done by a practitioner on someone else as well. Korzybski became quite adept at applying the technique to others with quite noticeable effects. Goddard Binkley, who later studied with F.M. Alexander and became a well-known teacher of Alexander’s technique of postural education, described his experience with Korzybski:
...Stripped to my shorts and seated on a chair facing Korzybski who was also seated on a chair, he gently took fleshy parts of my body in the palm of one hand, flexed the palm with straight fingers and then, gently pulling the flesh-muscle away from the bone, shook it gently and released his hand. This procedure he followed on all the more fleshy parts and in a different way on the face and hands. ...Afterwards, when I walked down the street from the Institute to my car, I felt light, free and floating, as though I’d shed a hundred burdens. (14) 
A few of Korzybski’s students would write about the technique and develop it further, but after his death it fell into disuse, without the research Korzybski seemed to think it deserved. (15)

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
10. Korzybski 1947, p. 289. 11. Ibid. 12. 

12. Schuchardt 1943, p. 1. 

13. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. lx. 

14. Binkley, p. 8. 15. For more on neuro-semantic relaxation see Wendell Johnson 1938 and Wendell Johnson 1946. Also see The Technique of Semantic Relaxation by Charlotte Schuchardt [Read] (1943) and the 1941 paper by May Watrous Niles, “Use of General Semantics Techniques In Physiotherapy”, pp. 183–186 in Papers From The Second American Congress On General Semantics (1943) edited by M. Kendig.

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