In the previous blog, I asked to you to notice how you pull you head forward and down for no apparently useful reason, which we called “computer neck”. In this blog I want to tell you how scientific studies have clearly documented this effect, but not why we do it or how to avoid it.
For example in 2013, B. Shahida and colleagues at the University of Colorado filmed group sixty office workers performing arithmetic and memory tasks while selecting words on a screen with a mouse1. They then repeated the task under more stressful conditions. (They were paid based on how fast and well they performed and egged on by “authoritative and unfamiliar tester who did not provide any positive feedback”. Think a nasty boss.)
The head was pulled dramatically forward as soon as the task started, even when there was no stress – there was no time pressure or rewards associated with the task. Then when the stress level increased, neck tension increased more even though the head did not move any further forward.
The upshot? For some reason, just about everyone pulls their head forward and tightens their neck whether they are quietly working or under stress.
Other studies document a correlation between pulling the head forward and things like sensory activation and reactivity. It’s as if there is some fundamental connection between pulling the head forward and getting things done.2,3
Why might we be programmed do such a silly thing? It doesn’t really help biomechanically. In fact is just bad for the neck. One idea comes from Prof. Rajal Cohen of the University of Idaho department of psychology. She has studied this habit in a variety of situations, most recently during initiation of walking. She thinks that the habit could be an evolutionary remnant from when we were quadrupeds, for whom “leading with the head” is a perfectly reasonable strategy. “When a quadruped puts its head forward, the head and spine are still aligned, but when a human puts his or her head forward, the head moves out of alignment with the spine. Therefore, what may be adaptive in quadrupeds may be maladaptive in humans.“4
Scientists also haven’t figured out how to avoid this habit. That is where a good Alexander technique teacher can step in. We are all about getting rid of this kind of postural habit. In the next two blogs I’ll give you my best tips about how to go about changing the way you work.In part 3 of this series, read about what not to do to solve computer neck
1Shahidi B, Haight A, Maluf K., Differential effects of mental concentration and acute psychosocial stress on cervical muscle activity and posture, J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2013 23(5):1082-9. link to article
2Fujiwara et al. The effects of neck flexion on cerebral potentials evoked by visual, auditory and somatosensory stimuli and focal brain blood flow in related sensory cortices. Journal of Physiological Anthropology 2012, 31:31 link to article
3 Fujiwara, K, Hidehito, T, Kenji K, _Increase in corticospinal excitability of limb and trunk muscles according to
maintenance of neck flexion._ , Neuroscience Letters 461 2009 235–239. link to article
4Rajal Cohen private communication.