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Motor? Control?

By Timothy Cocks Science and the world 10 Feb 2015

Watch this, it’s only 8 seconds:


Now watch it again while you think about this – there’s no motor, no springs, no electric wires, no control centre, yet this ‘walker’ achieves an uncannily human gait pattern.

I’m interested – what do you think when you watch this video?


– Tim Cocks


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  1. Awesome vid, thanks for posting. I have been looking for something like this for a while. For me this proves that a big part of motor intelligence lives in the intelligent design of the passive elements of the motor control system – the bones, fascia, tendons, connective tissue, etc. When the passive structures are optimally designed for a certain task, the muscular and neural systems don’t have to work very hard to produce optimal movement patterns. This is part of the reason some people are just born “naturals'” in certain activities. They are geniuses in their sport, but a good portion of their genius is in their bones not their brains.

    1. Hi Todd
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. There’s certainly something about watching ‘natural born’ athletes do their thing. Interesting to ponder the idea of trying to ‘copy’ the actions and movements of others in an attempt to emulate their success – even if I could swing a golf club like Tiger, shoot just like Jordan or swim like Thorpe I may still not be able to hit a golf ball as far, shoot as accurately or swim as fast.
      “Intelligent design” is an interesting pairing of words, but that might be a discussion for another time and place!

  2. Very interesting. How do we position this with the idea that movement might be an output, or learnt behavior which is influenced by belief systems? Are there degrees of ‘design’ and ‘output’ influencing movement? And if so, where are the parameters and borders of these components? Do you think this idea sufficiently explains “natural born” athletes? All these questions are genuine. Very interesting.


    1. Hi Roger
      Thanks for dropping by. I think you raise a great point in regards to notions of movement as output. Watching the video I did ponder whether we move best (some movements anyway), when the ‘output’ is minimal, when it’s out of the way, when there is very little ‘mind’ involved- reminded me of this:
      Perhaps any parameters and borders are dynamic, constantly changing, borders even indistinct? Melzack’s characterisation of the neuromatrix as “genetically determined and modified by sensory experience” is perhaps analogous.
      In regards to athletes, I suspect that there is a level of necessity for genetic advantages, but not sufficiency – athletic performance is probably emergent.

      Perhaps the real challenge is to neurocentric/’brain-centric’ thinking – a powerful reminder that we are not “brains in vats”.

    1. I think the moral here is that if you have a gentle ramp leading from your bed to the coffee machine in the kitchen, you don;t even need to be awake to make it.

  3. Very interesting video for a number of reasons, it got me thinking about lots of things but I think I can sum up my thoughts as follows;

    It demonstrates that natural motion can be a simple thing.

    It shows that interfering too much with this through “motor control” may not be a great idea.

    It demonstrates that in our persistent pain patients it is imperative we try to restore normal movements rather than careful controlled movements.

    What I personally find fascinating about this video is the fact that I came to the same conclusions a while back watching a video which is in essence the exact opposite of the video you’ve just posted. That particular video operated on the principle that the only reason we have a brain is for movement control. The fact that I can watch 2 such different videos and come to the same conclusions is in itself quite interesting and maybe shows some worrying evidence of conformation bias on my behalf.

    Here is a link to the other video unfortunately it is a lot more than 8 seconds long but it’s a pretty cool idea and very entertaining if you are into this kind of thing, which I presume everyone reading this is.

    I think Daniel Wolperts video picks up on some of Rogers questions like how movement might be an output and belief driven behavior. This link between the brain and movement is fascinating and goes I believe a long way to helping explain with persistent pain patients so often present with lots of tense, guarded and avoidant movement behaviors.

    I know its kind of the opposite to what you’ve posted Tim but for me it helps illustrate the same point, than been;

    How we think fundamentally changes how we move.

    This is I believe a key point which often holds back some of our persistent pain patients but it is something we can use to really instill great change. Change our patients thinking and we can change how they move. It can be quiet powerful concept.

    The “natural born” athletes is another fascinating topic, but I think it may be a whole other debate.

    Thanks for sharing, and stimulating my thinking,

    Aidan Tighe @AidanTighe

    1. Thanks Aidan
      Nice video and very relevant.
      The passive walker perhaps challenges Wolperts’ assertion that brains are required for ‘complex’ movement- bipedal walking is pretty complex and clearly no brain is required – but adaptable – there’s an idea that I think is at the core. The passive walker can’t adapt to it’s environment, it can only ‘walk’ downhill, if an object was moved into its path it couldn’t avoid a collision.

      I was hoping that someone would link this back to pain. Perhaps people in pain need less mind, less control, more freedom?

      Do you think it might be equally defensible, without negating the veracity of your statement to also say:

      How we move fundamentally changes how we think.

      Of course there’s precedent for this in the embodied cognition thinking, so I can take no credit if there’s any cleverness here!

  4. Carole Amend

    Thank you for this post!
    When I watch this video, I think about the wonders of gravity and the human skeleton’s relationship to it. Then I think about how we as humans have managed to both interfere with, as well as exemplify the virtues of, the intelligence of that evolution and design.
    The mechanics in the video reminds me that finding simplicity and naturalness is key, yet often the most difficult of endeavors.
    This is what I’ve spent the last 30 years exploring, and what I have found is that there are simple ways to teach people to relate to their unique internal structures…and that communicating those ways are universal in nature.

    1. Hi Carole
      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.
      I too had thoughts about rehab after watching this – particularly the complexity and high cognitive focus and load that is often introduced by clinicians during gait retraining or rehab following a neurological event.
      It also had me pondering the idea of changes to the structure of the body after injury or disease and the possible futility of trying to restore ‘normal’ movement patterns on a system that has been fundamentally altered in its physical properties – perhaps patients should be guiding clinicians as to the best way to discover and explore movement as part of rehab rather than the other way round?
      Thanks again

      1. Carole Amend

        Hi again Tim,
        As a somatic movement educator, honoring (not overriding) my client’s process and to follow his/her lead has always been my professional orientation. So, it is music to my ears to hear a clinician encouraging the patient-centered interaction you mentioned.
        Thanks for all the food for thought and this lovely conversation.
        I look forward to more!
        Have a great day. 🙂

  5. Let’s not forget the robot has been engineered by humans, with human like characteristics implanted. Doesn’t really get any more ‘biased’ than that, in terms of comparisons with the human body which has not been engineered by humans. Analogies which don’t recognise the differing origins of the design are maybe stretching their possibilities into uncharted territory. I think it would be more interesting, and perhaps more relevant if the robot assembled itself randomly, before comparisons are made. We simply can’t trust the engineer not to want to favour a particular outcome which maybe strikes us as unusually familiar with our own dynamics. It obviously attracts greater attention !

    Too skeptical ??

    1. Hey Gerry
      To me, the interesting aspect is not that the device walks like a human being, but that it walks like a human being *without* any motor, any control centre etc etc. I believe the intent of the engineers was always to mimic human gait – so perhaps more intent than bias.
      Yes, i would very much like to see a self-assembling robot – but that is still probably a few years off.

    1. Is there such a thing as unconsious movement…. It seems like consciousnous is on of off, like with a light switch….

      Consciousness to me is more like a dimmer switch…. Very varied states of consciousness…. Like tim says, maybe we turned the conscious dimmerswitch a bit too far too the right in rehab….

  6. ‘Centipede’s Dilemma’…..Excellent. Does seem to raise the question…’ What motor does govern ‘natural’ unconscious movement. Obviously, with the robot, it is governed by gravity, which is a motor of sorts, but it needs a constant downward slope. Humans also have an internal motor, which defies gravity constantly, leading to a greater range of dynamic movement possibilities, and even leading to some conflict with gravity ‘wear and tear’ issues.

    The real question here might be ….’Why does it not seem possible to reproduce the ‘natural’ non-conscious pain free state that occurs whilst sleeping, when we are awake and conscious.?’ Or does the ‘alert’ consciousness negate that prospect because of some hierarchical conflict between consciousness and non-consciousness. A deeper question might be….’Is pain our only consciously visible bridge between the two states ?’

    If pain is perceived as a ‘conscious reaction’ restraining perception, that bridging might make sense. Our autonomic protective systems, which may well be controlled and motorised in the non-visible non-conscious, and which seemingly operate with absolute integrity, might well have a need for creating a conscious reaction restrainer when any possible conscious reactions might conflict with autonomic responses, or somehow be deemed inappropriate. The ‘conscious confusion’ that pain perceptions tend to create, is often overlooked when attempting to define pain, and yet there could be a ’cause and effect’ purpose for that ‘conscious confusion’.

    A disputable purpose, no doubt !


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