What do you think?


And in the beginning???

An initial argument from the evolutionary psychology view might relate the development of non-specific lower back pain  to what the shape of the human spine is.  Since it is not in the evolutionary interest of humans to develop the symptoms associated with this category of ailment, its cause is best attributed to the actual shape of the spine.  But what is the shape of the human spine?

The investigative psychologist might pose a question that might look like this:

Could it be that the way a human believes the shape of their spine to be, could itself be the cause of non-specific lower back pain?

I am not a psychologist, rather I am a student of the bio-mechanical functioning of the human skeletal structure when it is functioning at its most efficient level (and the process of learning/teaching it).  Since the whole notion of relational mental-model-making/refining and translating this in to a practicable behaviour is a large part of what I do, it is natural that I would be interested in pursuing this line of thought in relation to the lower back pain that most of us relate to ‘the natural part of the ageing process’.

The picture of things

I love google images!!! and it seems that I’ve got some good representations today! Representations of how the development of non-specific lower back pain could be related to how we believe the structure of the human spine to be.  

Let’s take this image as a starting point.  The question to ask is why such a distorted and compressed representation of the spine is casually pasted over this young man’s photo? If it is for ‘educational’ purposes, then this distorted representation simply serves to help the learner move in that same direction.

If this image combination is to help the learner ‘improve his posture’, then the very fact that the spinal disks are so incredibly compressed (especially in the yellow area), will help the learner compress in that already compromised area even further.

You might rebuttal the use of this picture by voicing the following opinion:

“Hey that’s only a picture used for teaching or physiotherapy purposes! No one actually stands, sits or walks with a spine shaped like that you know!!”.

Feel free to do your own google images search under the tags, “posture” or “spinal bio mechanics”.  Almost all the image look similarly compressed as the one above.

The things is:

  • It doesn’t matter if this depiction of the spine is physiologically impossible to maintain without falling backwards.
  • It doesn’t matter if falling backwards is a sure way to restrict chances of survival in an evolutionary model of looking at the world.
  • It doesn’t even matter if holding this image as the fixed ‘is’ of the human spine as a matter of day to day living may be the leading cause of non-specific lower back pain
  • The only thing that really matters is:

This image got into medical books of the western civilisations, and no questions are asked, the fact of its existence proves that is an irrefutable fact. 

It doesn’t matter if this images and similar ones are at all ‘rational’, they have taken hold and unfortunately we have not developed a widespread way of asking questions about its soundness.  Especially when it comes to the relation between ‘what we think’ and its effect on our postural behaviour.  But as the saying goes: “the night is still young”, so it is never too late to start asking constructive questions in this regards.

The fact is that the curves and bends in the depiction shown above (and marked in different colours), are severe abnormalities which are rendered from a dried-up, lifeless, shrivelled, cold, misarticulated  cadaver’s reconstructed bones.  Bones that bare no relation to a functioning model within gravity.

But the image has stuck.

If you care to know

You might question what I am posing here by thinking that we humans, the highest of all animals are too reasonable to believe that the curves of the human spine as they are in pictorial representations and plastic medical models (in most corners of the globe at least) are misrepresentations of ‘reality’.

But we are not as rational or reasonable as we would like to think we are.

Thinking, Fast and Slow   represents some of the most recent research in the area of innate rationally, research that is both thought provoking and practical.  If you are too busy to read this book, feel free to watch/listen to the google talk (yes, I love google) about the book by its author Daniel Kahneman.

The gist of the book is about the fact that as humans, we are not prone to rationality.  It is a cultivated behaviour (far away from the dry and stiff Victorian model mind you).  Even when it’s in our best interest, we are not ‘hard wired’ to behave rationally.  But we can improve our consistency at practicing it, by well, you know…practicing it.

Coming back to efficient movement and avoidance of non specific pain, we can learn to be rational and reasonable, but we are not born knowing how to have efficient postures, this is precisely why investigating the soundness of the what we think the human spine to be is such a fruitful practical exercise.

Dewey, please tell…

John Dewey states an interesting proposition in his book How we think:

Believing the world’s flatness commits him who holds it to thinking in certain specific ways of other objects, such as the heavenly bodies, antipodes, and the possibility of navigation. It prescribes to him actions in accordance with his conception of these objects.

Let’s bring this down to earth really simply by replacing ‘world’ with ‘spine’ and ‘heavenly bodies’ with the supportive musculature systems.  We can leave ‘other objects’ almost as it is, that is in relation to the rest of the living human physiology.  But, as with F.M. Alexander’s technique we are concerned with breathing and overall efficiency during simple, everyday activities.

The Grey’s anatomy rendering of a dead and misaligned spine, which relates to the popular and clinical understanding of human movement (at least in the countries in which I’ve lived in), is based on a faulty and illogical understanding.
This understanding is perhaps as archaic as traversing the oceans with the understanding that the earth is flat!


The wrong image of the spine

If you think I’m at all radical in stating this, the following image might clarify my point.  This image which is replicated in educational plastic models of the human anatomy are designed to demonstrate a damaged spine.  This might not have been Grey’s assertion, but it has become a common vernacular in the medical world:

“The reason you have pain, is because the human spine is shaped this way, and there isn’t a thing in a world that can be done about it”!

For some reason there is no discernible difference between what we can assume the healthy spine to be (the lower photo), and x-ray image of the person with a herniated disk.


All things being equal, we humans are continuously reshaping our sense of what is.  Since it is a very inexpensive exercise, would it be possible to play a little ‘reshaping game’ for a moment?

Is it possible that we could rephrase the sentence:

Most humans develop non-specific lower back pain (or non-specific RSI) because of the shape of the human spine, which then leads to a corresponding postural habit/behaviour.  


Most humans develop non-specific lower back pain (or non-specific RSI) because of what they believe is the shape of the human spine, which then leads to a corresponding postural habit/behaviour.  

It’s possible to ask the question, isn’t it?

It’s also possible to prevent the possible onset of non-specific lower back pain by reshaping or updating this believed image.

Why take the trouble, you ask?

We humans don’t have a good history of how we treat one another generally speaking, so I choose to live efficiently because I’ve got a lot of work to do, that is, I want to be active during all my days. (All things being equal that is, since I can’t prevent or foresee all other causes of my eventual immobility or death).

Getting back to image making and its relationship to non-specific lower back pain, here are two comparative photos of me depicting the results of two differing conceptions, images, or ideas of ‘the human spine’:

This photo depicts a series of instructions (shortening and narrowing the torso)  or a ‘Grey’s anatomy way’ of the spine and its related structures:

This one is from google images (ah, I love google!!!!!!)

This photo depicts a series of instructions (lengthening and widening) that move towards a relational way of looking at the spine and its related structures:

We humans are always at an activity, so it might seem impossible or irrelevant to note what might be small differences to an untrained eye (between the two differing postural attitudes depicted) as a matter of day to day movement behaviour.  This is simply an opinion.  If we reason out this opinion, we can also conclude that how we approach an activity and our physical behaviour during those moments does make a difference in the long run.  

Even though the second picture of me isn’t ‘perfect depiction’, can you note that the arms joints are much more accessible for turning around an guitar as compared to the first photo?  Can you note that the self-guided changes in my torso in the second picture allows my head to be less pulled back?

Here is a beautiful photo of the ever joyous Art Blakey and his group.  I’ve included it here not because I am fortune teller of how their spinal behaviour (in the moment the picture is taken) effects their music making on the whole, but because asking the question about ‘what we think’ and its effect on how we behave is a pertinent one to ask.

In a way learning to behave more efficiently in a postural way, also gives us an ability to expand our mental capabilities. This is all with the hidden treasure of becoming more understanding of others.