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June 26

Logical Levels in Learning & Problem Resolution

Logical Levels in Learning

By Al Wadleigh

Author’s note: I wrote this paper in January 2002 as an assignment from Elizabeth Beringer at the beginning of my third year of my Professional Feldenkrais Training Program.

Logical Levels in Learning

Gregory Bateson recounts the following research in which he was involved at the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii. A dolphin was being trained to perform a unique piece of behavior each training session. The dolphin entered a training tank, and the trainer waited until she saw a unique piece of behavior on the part of the dolphin. Upon seeing this unique behavior, a head-flop, in this case, the trainer blew a whistle, and the dolphin was rewarded with a fish. When the dolphin did the head flop again, the whistle was blown, and she got another fish and so on during that training session. The next training session the dolphin came out and performed the head flop again, but there was no whistle and no fish. She spent two-thirds of the second session engaging in the previously rewarded behavior, but no whistle was blown, and no fish were given. And then, perhaps in a display of anger, she flipped her tail. The trainer viewed this as a unique piece of behavior and blew the whistle and gave the dolphin a fish. The dolphin did the tail flip again and again and was rewarded. During the third training session, the dolphin tried the previously rewarded behaviors but to no avail. Until most likely by accident, she demonstrated another unique piece of behavior and again was rewarded for it. This progressed for fourteen sessions. Between the fourteenth and fifteenth sessions, the dolphin became very agitated — as Bateson put it, “almost insane with excitement.” Upon letting the dolphin into the training tank, she demonstrated twelve new pieces of behavior, several of which had never been seen in the species before.

The dolphin had made an impressive shift in her understanding. She made a jump from one session for which the rule was, “do a behavior, hear a whistle and get fish” to a general rule which was “demonstrate a unique behavior each session, hear a whistle get a fish.” To make this shift in thinking, she had to collect enough examples to generalize across the sessions. In other words, she had to examine (if that is what dolphins do) the examples of each of her sessions and notice what was common to all of them. What the examples had in common was that she was being asked to perform a unique piece of behavior for each session. To make this generalization, she had to step from information about a single session to information about a group (or class) of sessions. Gregory Bateson viewed this as a step from one logical level to the next; a step from information about an event to information about a class of events. It might be stated that she made a step from considering a class, to a class of classes.

To form a class, like our dolphin mentioned above, we need several examples to understand what is in common. As with the dolphin, it would be impossible to understand the meaning from just one example.

I have experienced this shift in thinking in my learning of the Feldenkrais Method. One example of this occurred in segment six of our training in which we were working primarily with the pelvis in the situations of kneeling over the table and sitting. In the situation of kneeling over the table, we explored the movements of the pelvis by hooking under the sit bones and tilting the pelvis forward, pushing down on the sit bones and tilting the pelvis backward, hooking the outside of either sit bone with one hand and with the other pushing on the side of the iliac crest in order to tilt the pelvis upward, and also a diagonal movement by hooking under either sit bone with one hand and with the other hand on the iliac crest. Similar movements were learned in the seated position with different methods. Trying to remember all these movements can take up a lot of thought. But if they are considered at a higher logical level, we could say they are all examples of the class of possible movements of the pelvis; not exhaustive of the class of movements of the pelvis, but examples of possible movements of the pelvis.

The clock is a familiar metaphor we use to describe the movements of the pelvis. We can then ask the question, “To what class do the clock-like movements of the pelvis belong?” What other parts of ourselves can move in similar ways? The list is long but here are some examples that come to mind: shoulders, ankles, wrists, head and neck, fingers and so on. We now have a class of classes or a context of contexts of which the meaning is “clock-like movements.”

At one level we have the individual movements of the pelvis, which belong to the class of movements of the pelvis, which belongs to the class of parts of ourselves that have clock-like movements as does the pelvis. I’m not suggesting that this is the only way to organize these ideas. The proposed classes are not rigid or absolute. They are simply useful ways of organizing and classifying information and experience. Any member of a class can certainly be a member of any other class.

If we consider a class of possible movements, we are no longer burdened with trying to remember all the detailed members of the class. We can recall the class and know what is possible. Once the class is formed, then other possible movements belonging to that class can emerge into our awareness. Again, our dolphin made the generalization and came up with behaviors never observed in the species before!

How Context Shapes Meaning

Bateson describes in his book, Mind and Nature, how a message is understood at a higher logical level than that of the message itself — a meta-message. In other words, the context makes the meaning of the message. The message may be understood differently in various contexts.

For example, if our dog Tasha stretches her paws out in front of her with her forearms on the ground, she is gesturing an invitation to play. If our other dog, Frith, accepts, then the play is initiated. On the other hand, if Frith is involved in the chewing a bone then the communication may be interpreted as a ruse to steal his bone, and he may reject the invitation to play. The context from which the dogs interpret the gesture of play shapes the meaning of the gesture. (I have witnessed this ruse repeated many times between our dogs.)

At one point we had four dogs. Naomi being the oldest, and I think the wisest, would trick the other dogs (and us for a time) into letting her have their chewy toys. She would do this by acting as though she wanted to go outside when, in fact, she was operating from a context of getting more toys. One of us would get up to let the dogs out. The other three would run out, and Noami would back away from the door and gather the chewy toys for her own amusement. Naomi was behaving from a different logical level than that of our other dogs and us.

So how does the meaning of the context affect our learning in the Method? The context that Moshe Feldenkrais set forth early on is that the Method takes place in a context of learning. It’s not therapy or exercise. But to understand better the meaning of these contexts let’s imagine that the Method is about therapy or exercise. How would that change the way we approach someone who comes into our office? If we were thinking of the Method as therapy, we would first assume they have a problem and that the problem needs to be diagnosed. Once we have diagnosed the problem, then we treat it. If I have pain in my shoulder, I might be diagnosed with a “frozen shoulder.” First of all, with the diagnosis, I no longer have just a sore shoulder, but I now have something called a “frozen shoulder.” Now a treatment plan is made to deal with the diagnosis, and we begin work on the shoulder as if it were the problem disconnected from everything else.

If we thought of the Method as exercise, the meaning would be very different again. We would be trying to achieve something like improved strength or better flexibility. Since we are exercising, we would be using all of the assumptions of exercise; putting effort into each movement; more would be better, and accelerating the effort to exhaustion would be the norm.

Thankfully, the context of the Method is that of learning, which has a completely different set of assumptions than therapy or exercise. In the context of learning, awareness plays a key role. As teachers, we give learnable pieces of movement. Problems may be posed, and solutions are discovered. Movements may build or refer to previously learned pieces of movement until they form a complete idea in movement.

What are Contexts for Learning?

Bateson, in his book, Mind and Nature, gives the following example of the behavior of a rat. A researcher is attempting to extinguish the behaviors of the rat going from opening to opening in a maze and sticking its nose in each hole by giving it an electric shock. Regardless of how many times the rat gets shocked it continues to stick its nose into boxes but learns to avoid sticking its nose into the boxes in which it received a shock. The researcher is confused. Why don’t the shocks extinguish the behavior? Bateson infers that the context for the rat is exploration. Therefore everything the rat experiences — even getting shocked — is a success in exploration. The context of exploration is at a higher logical level than the behaviors involved in exploration. The context of exploration shapes the understanding of the results. In the case of the rat, shock or no shock, exploration is successful.

How does context shape our ability to learn in the Method? The context from which we approach learning can greatly influence our ability to gather information and to understand it. The context or state from which we work and experience the Method is at a higher logical level than the behaviors in which we engage. And those behaviors are generated out of the context (and the state) that organizes those behaviors. The context and state predetermine how results will be interpreted. What states would be most useful in learning? Exploration and curiosity are two examples.

The context set forth in the method by Moshe is that of learning. I propose that the contexts of exploration or curiosity can be most useful in organizing the class of learning. With these frames in mind as we approach learning the Method, all experiences become useful. There is no failure, only useful information is gained even when things don’t go as desired. Exploration has been successful, and learning has still occurred.

For the sake of contrast, how would our work be interpreted if learning were in the class of right or wrong? We would be concerned about the correctness of the movement. There would most likely be a criticism of ourselves and of our students for doing it incorrectly. Clearly, this would make learning much more difficult and learning the Method wouldn’t be nearly as fun or interesting.

Problem Formation & Problem Resolution

These ideas of classes, contexts, and levels are part of the Theory of Logical Types. There are two primary postulates in the Theory of Logical Types: 1. Logical Levels must be kept separate and 2. Going from one Logical Level to the next higher creates a change or transformation of that thing at the lower logical level. This provides a way out of a system and the means to change a system.

Being able to categorize experience and sort it into groups is a key element in learning — whether it is done consciously or outside of consciousness. It is a natural process for learning. If these logical levels become confused, then problems can arise. In other words, if one attempts to solve a problem at one logical level when change at another logical level is actually called for, then difficulties can develop.

If confusion between logical levels occurs, actions may be taken in an attempt to produce a solution that actually compounds the problem to which the attempted solution had been applied. Watzlawick, et. al. in their book, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, describe how attempting to solve problems at the same logical level can leave the problem unchanged or cause it to escalate. This type of problem-solving is called first-order change. Second-order change is making a shift in logical levels, that is, getting out of a system. For example, if a person is having a nightmare, they can run, hide, scream, fight, etc. They can do many things within the dream to change it (first-order change). Or they can get out of the dream altogether, change state from dreaming to waking (second-order change).

Another example of first-order and second-order change is the nine-dot problem. The task is to connect all nine dots with only four lines without letting your pencil leave the paper.

9 dot problem

When most people are faced with this problem, they make numerous attempts but only find that their solutions leave at least one dot unconnected-first-order change.

9 dot attempted solutions

The perspective from within the system or group is that the problem is unsolvable. Even after all attempts have been made to solve the problem, a shift in logical levels may not take place. From within the system, the rules for second-order change cannot be generated. When second-order change takes place, it typically seems unpredictable and outside one’s control. From outside the system, it is just a set of rules which can be affected.

The person solving the nine-dot problem is assuming a constraint that does not exist. The assumption is that they must remain within the constraints of an imaginary outline of the box to find the solution. No matter how many attempts they make, they cannot solve the problem. They can run through all possible operations without making a shift in logical levels.

Thus the solution to the nine-dot problem actually lies outside the box. Instructions were never given that the connecting lines had to stay within the imagined outline of the box. The lines can exceed the constraints of the imagined box and connect all the dots together — a second-order change.

9 dot solution

We can see this same kind of thinking involved in Awareness Through Movement. There have been numerous times when we were doing ATM lessons in class, and I had unconsciously imposed some kind constraint on my movement. Only when the teacher suggested that I move another part of myself did I realize this and then become free of the constraint.

Another good example of this from the Method is the 3-minute ATMs we were developing in segment six with Mark Reese. Let’s say, for example; I ask someone to sit in a chair and look left and right and to notice how far to the left and right they can look. Most people who have not been exposed to the Method, in my experience, will typically move their head and eyes left and right to some degree. If coaxed to look farther in either direction (which we would most likely not do) the person would probably do more of the same. That is, they would turn their head more and strain with their neck and eyes. Like the nine-dot problem, they are attempting first-order change where second-order change is called for. In order to facilitate a second-order change, I would suggest that they place the palms of their hands on their forehead and bring their elbows together. And in this position turn their head, arms, and shoulders as a unit left and right a few times. After a brief rest, I would have them return to the original movement of looking left and right again. And now they find that with little effort, their range of motion had improved. They can look farther to the left and right, and they find more of themselves involved in the movement. A second-order change has been made. They went outside the box of their self-imposed limitation of movement.

We can again look at our dolphin and see that, for fourteen training sessions, she attempted first-order change where second-order change was required. And when she did make the jump in logical levels, she was able to generate many solutions to the problem with which she was faced.

Another way to facilitate second-order change is by paradoxical treatment or, as Milton H. Erickson, M.D. described it, prescribing the symptom. In the Feldenkrais Method, we call it going with the pattern. Here are some examples:

Let’s say we have a phobic man who is terrified to go into a store. He probably has fresh memories of being in a store and experiencing vertigo and maybe fainting or feeling extreme panic. The client is assigned to go into the store and go as far as he can, but stopping and fainting on purpose three paces before he would have otherwise. In his history, he has most likely attempted many solutions to his problem. Perhaps by saying over and over to himself, “I’m not going to panic, I’m not going to panic;” or by going to therapy to try to discover the source of the problem; all of which leave the system unchanged — first-order change. Whereas having to do his symptom intentionally changes his perception and requires a shift in logical levels making it impossible to have the problem as he did before — second-order change. The problem has been placed into a different context, and it’s meaning changed.

The other night I got into bed with my wife, and I noticed the shower dripping. It seemed so loud. The more I tried to ignore it the more it kept me awake — first-order change. So I decided to try the principle of prescribing the symptom, and I listened very intently to each drop and the length of time between them, trying to notice how the frequency of dripping would accelerate or slow as the water pressure changed — second-order change. The next thing I remember was waking up in the morning.

These are all examples of going with the pattern. In each case, that which was experienced as a problem or limitation was intentionally done. Doing the pattern with intention puts it in a different context in which it is no longer experienced as a problem.

I have also experienced this many times in my practice of Functional Integration. In one case the effects were quite dramatic. Stephanie, a friend of mine with whom I have been practicing, had a spasm in her lower back. She had already made several attempts at first-order change — stretching, massage, etc. I asked her to sit in a chair, and I felt up and down her spine. The muscles were definitely working harder in her lower back. Using my fingers, I brought the tissue together on the side of her spine that seemed to be working the least. I took over the work of those muscles, and when I released my support of them, her whole demeanor shifted. The muscle on that side softened, she shifted her posture and laughed. I did the same thing to the other side, and similar reaction happened ending with a laugh and lightening of overall state.

Another application of this type of change that I have experienced with the Method is our recent homework assignment. We were tasked to discover other ATMs that would inform the movement of “Bringing the Head Through the Arms” in the fifth lesson of the “Sawing Arms” series from the sixth segment. In class I found this movement to be impossible to do, and for several weeks after the segment, I played around with numerous first-order change attempts in hopes of informing the movement but with little success. I eventually came to the conclusion that I needed more freedom of movement in my shoulder blades and shoulder girdle. My shoulder blades needed to move away from my spine so that my shoulders could come forward enough to allow my elbow to cross the other and my thoracic spine needed to round forward. Typical first-order change approaches might entail doing movement to lengthen the shoulder forward perhaps by lengthening the arm forward by doing an ATM — like “Reaching Like a Skeleton.” My solution was to go with the pattern of what I was experiencing as the limitation in my movement. The muscles in my upper back and around my shoulder blades were working much harder than they needed to. So I selected the ATM series of “Head Through the Gap” which would be a complementary movement of extension and would bring the shoulder blades closer to my spine in various configurations. After exploring this series several times and testing by returning to the reference movement of bringing my head through my arms, I was — much to my surprise — able to do the movement. The impossible became possible.


The ability to categorize our experience and to generalize across contexts is of the utmost importance in learning. It is a natural process of learning but one for which confusions between logical levels can arise. Bringing awareness to this process can help in how we organize ourselves for learning and how we organize what we have learned. By organizing our generalizations about what we have learned, we can then find other examples belonging to the categories we have already formed — bearing in mind that the boundaries between classes are fictional and that members of any class can be members of other classes. It is probably fair to say that there are an infinite number of ways to categorize our learning of the Feldenkrais Method — some are just more functional than others.


Bateson, Gregory, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, Bantam Book, 1979.
Bateson, Gregory, Simple Thinking, Dolphin Tapes, 1980.
Watzlawick, Paul; Weakland, John; Fisch, Richard, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1974.
Andreas, Steve; Faulkner, Charles, Logical Levels & Language, Workshop, June 2001.


Gregory Bateson, Logical levels

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