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Esther Thelen - Motor Development: A New Synthesis

Esther Thelen - Motor Development: A New Synthesis

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Science Watch
Motor Development
A New Synthesis
Esther Thelen
Indiana University BloomingtonThe study of the acquisition of motor skills, long moribundin developmental psychology, has seen a renaissance inthe last decade. Inspired by contemporary work in move-ment science, perceptual psychology, neuroscience, anddynamic systems theory, multidisciplinary approaches areaffording new insights into the processes by which infantsand children learn to control their bodies. In particular,the new synthesis emphasizes the multicausal,
fluid,
con-textual, and self-organizing nature of developmentalchange, the unity of perception, action, and cognition, andthe role of exploration and selection in the emergence ofnew
behavior.
Studies are concerned less with
how
childrenperform and more with how the components cooperate toproduce stability or engender change. Such process ap-proaches make moot the traditional nature-nurturedebates.
I
f one asks parents about their babies, one will almostsurely hear about the child's motor milestones. "Mel-anie just learned to roll over." "Jason is finally sittingup alone.'
1
"I have to babyproof the house because Caitlinjust started to crawl."It is no wonder that proud parents report on theseevents. New motor skills are the most dramatic and ob-servable changes in an infant's first year. These stagelikeprogressions transform babies from being unable even tolift their heads to being able to grab things oft"supermarketshelves, chase the dog, and become active participants infamily social life.It is also no wonder that motor skill developmentwas Ihe first topic in the scientific study of infancy. Longbefore developmental psychologists became interested inthe mental lives of infants, there was a rich tradition ofcareful descriptive and quasi-experimental study of howthe bodies of infants grow and change. Pioneer develop-mental scientists such as Mary Shirley, Arnold Gcsell,and Myrtle McGraw spent the 1920s through 1940s con-ducting observations of how infants gain control of theirmovements. To modern developmentalists, the incredibledetail of their observations and the resulting behavioralcategory distinctions are both amazing and somewhat ex-cessive. Gesell, for instance, described age norms for 58stages of pellet behavior, 53 stages of rattle behavior, andso on for 40 different behavioral series (Gesell & Thomp-son, 1938).But Gcsell (Gesell & Thompson, 1938) and McGraw(1943) were more than just observers and describers. Theywere also important theorists, interested in why infantsuniversally pass through a series of motor milestones.Both of these early workers concluded that the regularitiesthey saw as motor skills emerged reflected regularities inbrain maturation, a genetically driven process commonto all infants. Gesell was especially clear in assigning pri-macy to autonomous changes in the nervous system andonly a secondary and supporting role to infants' experi-ence. Some researchers claimed that this maturationalurge was so strong that even restricting infant movementson cradleboards, a practice of the Hopi people of thesouthwest, did not deflect this timetable (Dennis & Den-
nis,
1940).In some ways, these pioneers did their jobs too well.Their descriptions of motor milestones and stages wereincorporated into all the textbooks. Their age norms be-came the bases of widely used developmental tests, andtheir maturational explanation was accepted as gospeland is still believed widely today. (The Hopi study, forinstance, is frequently quoted in textbooks, despite manysubsequent examples of experiential effects on infantmotor development.) It seemed as though researchersknew everything they needed to know about motor de-velopment: It provided the universal, biological groundingfor the more psychologically interesting aspects of earlydevelopment—cognition, language, and social behavior.Indeed, by the 1960s, the motor field was moribund asdevelopmentalists moved toward Piaget, behavior modi-fication, and ethological theories of social attachment.
Frances Degen Horowitz served as action editor for this article.This research was supported by a gram from the National Institutesof Health and a Research Scientist Award from the National Instituteof Mental Health.Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to F.s-ther Thelen. Department of Psychology, Indiana University; Bloomington,IN 47405.
February 1995 • American Psychologist
Copyright 1995 hy the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0003-fl6(>X/9.V$2 00
Vol.
50. No. 2, 79-95
79
 
Esther Thelen
Photo byDexter Gormley.
Now after 30 years, the cycle has again shifted, andthe field is experiencing a renewed and revitalized interestin motor development. The purpose of this article is todescribe this born-again field and the converging influ-ences that shape it. What is especially exciting is not justthat motor development researchers are learning moreand more about how babies come to control their limbsand bodies but also that the field of motor developmentmay again provide theoretical leadership for understand-ing human development in general. There are two waysin which this promise may be fulfilled. First, we seek torestore the primacy of perception and action in the evolv-ing mental and social life of the child. Second, I hope toshow in this article that the new multidisciplinary, pro-cess-oriented studies coming from this field make obsoletemany old debates in developmental psychology, partic-ularly those that pit nature against nurture.The renaissance of motor development was markedin August 1993 by the publication of a special section of
Child Development,
a leading developmental journal, en-titled "Developmental Biodynamics: Brain, Body, Be-havior Connections," edited by Jeffrey J. Lockman ofTulane University and myself (Lockman & Thelen, 1993).The title captures the multiple influences that have cometogether to spark this new interest: dramatic advances inthe neurosciences, in biomechanics, and in the behavioralstudy of perception and action. But most important havebeen new theoretical and conceptual tools that have sweptaway old ways of thinking and brought the promise of adevelopmental synthesis closer to realization.In this article I describe these converging ideas andhow they have been adapted by the contributors to thisspecial section as well as other researchers. These influ-ences include the pioneering work of the Russian move-ment physiologist N. Bernstein (1967), the extension ofBernstein's program into theories of motor behavior onthe basis of physical and mathematical dynamical sys-tems,the ecological theories of perception and perceptualdevelopment of J. J. Gibson (1979) and E. J. Gibson(1982,1988), increased understanding of neurophysio-logical and biomechanical mechanisms in infants, andnew theories and data on the organization and plasticityof the brain and its development. Taken together, theylead to a very different picture of the developing infantthan that imagined by Gesell, Piaget, or indeed manycontemporary psychologists. In the final section of thearticle, I outline this new view of development.
The Bernstein Revolution
To appreciate the paradigm shift engendered by Bernstein(1967),it is first useful to look at the traditional viewsagain. Gesell (Gesell & Thompson, 1938) and McGraw(1943) described patterns and sequences of movementthat emerged in lawful (if not simple) progression. Theythen hypothesized that the changes in behavior directlyreflect changes in the brain, especially the increasing cor-tical control over lower level reflexes(e.g.,McGraw, 1943).The brain-to-behavior causal link is an eminently plau-sible explanation and one that is offered by some devel-opmentalists today (e.g., Diamond, 1990).What then did Bernstein write (his work was firstpublished in English in 1967) that made this explanationseriously deficient? Bernstein was the first to explicitlydefine movement in terms of coordination, the cooper-ative interaction of many body parts and processes toproduce a unified outcome (see Turvey, 1990). The issueis usually stated as Bernstein's "degrees-of-freedom"problem: How can an organism with thousands of mus-
cles,
billions of nerves, tens of billions ofcells,and nearlyinfinite possible combinations of body segments and po-sitions ever figure out how to get them all working towarda single smooth and efficient movement without invokingsome clever "homunculus" who has the directions alreadystored?Having defined the issue, Bernstein (1967) thencontributed foundational insights. First, he argued, re-searchers must reject the idea that a movement reflects aone-to-one relationship between the neural codes, theprecise firing of the motorneurons, and the actual move-ment pattern. Movements, he recognized, can come aboutfrom a variety of underlying muscle contraction patterns,and likewise, a particular set of muscle contractions doesnot always produce identical movements. Why must thisbe? Imagine lifting your arm to shoulder height and thenrelaxing your muscles. Then imagine shaking your handvigorously just at the wrist. The actual movements pro-duced—your arm drops in the first example and yourlower and upper arm vibrate in the second—are not allcontrolled by your nervous system. As your body partsmove, they generate inertial and centripetal forces andare subject to gravity. Such forces contribute to all move-ments, while they are happening, and constitute a con-tinually changing force field. Thus, the same muscle con-traction may have different consequences on your arm
80
February 1995 • American Psychologist
 
depending on the specific context in which the contrac-tions occur.Bernstein (1967) saw that this meant that actionsmust be planned at a very abstract level because it isimpossible for the central nervous system to programall of these local, contextually varying, force-related in-teractions specifically and ahead of time. Indeed, oncea decision to move has been made, the subsystems andcomponents that actually produce the limb trajectoryare
softly assembled
(to use a term introduced later byKugler & Turvey, 1987) from whatever is available andbest fits the task. This type of organization allows thesystem great flexibility to meet the demands of the taskwithin a continually changing environment, whilemaintaining a movement category suited to the goal inmind.Bernstein (1967) also helped motor development re-searchers recognize that such an organization gives some-thing for nothing, that is, the ability to exploit the naturalproperties of the motor system and the complementarysupport of the environment. For example, limbs havespringlike properties because of the elastic qualities ofmuscles and the anatomical configuration of the joints.When an ordinary physical spring is stretched and re-leased, it oscillates on a regular trajectory until it comesto rest at a particular equilibrium point. The trajectoryand resting point are not monitored and adjusted (thereis no "brain" in a spring) but fall out of the physicalproperties of the spring itself—its stiffness and damping.In a similar way, springlike limbs greatly simplify motorcontrol. The mover only has to set the parameters of thelimb spring to reach the final resting position and neednot be concerned with the details of how the limb getsthere. The pathway self-organizes from the properties ofthe components.Likewise, the environment puts critical constraintson the degrees of freedom. For human locomotion, forexample, the need to remain upright, move forward, andyet maintain an efficient periodic contact and push offfrom the ground limits the possible motor solutions to arestricted class. Although the system permits jumping,hopping, crawling, or dancing the tango to cross the room,organic constraints and surface properties make it moreefficient for humans to walk, and this is the pattern thatall nonimpaired people discover and prefer. (In the moon'sreduced gravity, however, astronauts chose to jump!)Walking as a solution does not have to be prepro-grammed, as it arises inevitably from constraints, givena system with many possible solutions.In light of Bernstein's (1967) insights, the simplepicture of the infant waiting for the brain to mature andthen, like a marionette, executing the brain's commandsis clearly untenable. For infants as well as for adults,movements are always a product of not only the centralnervous system but also of the biomechanical and ener-getic properties of the body, the environmental support,and the specific (and sometimes changing) demands ofthe particular task. The relations between these compo-nents is not simply hierarchical (the brain commands,the body responds) but is profoundly distributed, "het-erarchical," self-organizing, and nonlinear. Every move-ment is unique; every solution is fluid and flexible. Howcan these relations be known to the infant ahead of time?How can the timetable of motor solutions be encoded inthe brain or in the genes?
Multicausal Development
An important consequence, therefore, of these new ideasof motor organization on motor development was to directattention to the multicausality of action, including thepurely physical, energetic, and physiological componentstraditionally thought to be psychologically uninterestingbut now recognized to be essential in the final movementpatterns produced.A good example of multiple systems in motor de-velopment is the so-called newborn stepping reflex. New-born infants, when held upright with their feet on a sup-port surface, perform alternating, steplike movements.Newborn stepping is intriguing, first, because it is sur-prising to see such well-coordinated patterns at an agewhen infants are so motorically immature and, second,because within a few months, these movements "disap-pear." Infants do not step again until late in the first year,when they intentionally step prior to walking. Such re-gressive or U-shaped developmental phenomena are ofgreat interest to developmentalists because they raisequestions about continuity and the nature of ontogeneticprecursors as well as about the function of behaviors thatdisappear.The traditional explanation of the stepping responsewas single-causal: Maturation of the voluntary corticalcenters first inhibited subcortical or reflexive movementsand then facilitated them under a different and higherlevel of control (McGraw, 1943). This long-accepted ex-planation came into question when motor developmentresearchers took a broader, systems approach. In the early1980s, my graduate student Donna Fisher and I studiedthe organization of other infant leg movements, therhythmical kicking seen when babies are on their backsor stomachs. Kicking is very common throughout infancyand, unlike stepping, does not disappear after a fewmonths. What surprised us was that kicking and steppingappeared to be the same movement patterns. When wecompared the kinematics (time-space patterns) of thejoint movements and the underlying muscle activationpatterns of kicking and stepping in the same infants, wefound no substantial difference. They were the samemovements performed in two different postures. Whatstrained credulity was that the cortex would inhibitmovements in one posture but not in another.What else could be going on? According to the newview, movement arises from a confluence of processesand constraints in the organism and environment. Achange in posture is a change in the relationship betweenthe mass of the body and the gravitational field. Just asimple biomechanical calculation showed that it requiresmore strength to lift a leg to full flexion while uprightthan while supine, where after a certain point gravityFebruary 1995 • American Psychologist81

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